Rubens painted this powerful and psychologically complex image of leadership and military duty around 1612-1614, the very moment that he was enjoying the public triumph that accompanied the unveiling of his great triptychs, The Elevation of the Cross and The Deposition (Antwerp Cathedral), which stamped his genius on a generation of Flemish artists. He depicts a determined 'Knight in Arms' whose bearing and demeanour express an uncompromising commitment to his duty as warrior and leader. Later in his own life, Rubens was to act as a man of peace, but here in his early maturity in Antwerp, without recourse to allegory, he appears to celebrate the concept of the just war or crusade.
The curly haired, amply bearded man, identifiable as a commander by the long baton or staff on which his hand rests, is being dressed in his armour. The gilt or latten borders to his defences are evidence of his high status. He wears a mail shirt - brilliantly evoked by Rubens's brush - and his own right arm and shoulder are already fully protected by the pauldron, vambrace, fingered gauntlet and besagew. These elements have yet to be fitted to the other arm and shoulder, as the blond-haired page bends to secure the backplate to the breastplate. The plumed morion displayed by the dark-haired page will be fitted last.
The armour appears to be Milanese; its style suggests a date of manufacture in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. The absence of a lance-rest on the breastplate and of an haute-piece at the shoulder suggests that foot rather than mounted combat was anticipated. The choice of a morion, which would leave the face unprotected, could imply that the commander was being arrayed to lead a parade of infantry.
Rubens brings to his emblematic depiction of a warrior and his pages not only the bravura brushwork, inventive design and masterly drawing for which he was already widely admired, but a compelling psychological insight into his characters. The two young servants are realized in a virtuoso choreography of foreshortening in which one bends forward and tips into the light as the other reaches up and dips back, away from the light source, his lower face and hand daringly defined by shadows cast from his master's helmet. Yet, as dazzling as are Rubens's painterly pyrotechnics, the sensitivity with which he characterizes the boys is equally impressive: their eager, excited engagement in their work and admiring, almost starry-eyed devotion to their master is conveyed with memorable economy.
Amid the action, the Commander, encased in his metal carapace, is straight-backed and strong, a model of bravery and dedication, but not devoid of tender feeling: the gentleness with which his ungloved left hand rests on the shoulder of the much younger page makes for a poignant gesture of avuncular affection. His unblinking gaze engages the observer directly, but his furrowed brow suggests a melancholy and hard-won understanding of the horrors of battle as much as it does an unyielding determination to fight when called on to do so. Indeed, Julius Held speculated (in a view not widely shared) that the subject of the picture could as easily be interpreted as the warrior removing his armour following a battlefield victory as preparation for the battle to come. 'If this is so,' Held observed, 'the work would be related to one of the most pervasive themes in Rubens' art, the recognition of the heroism required by war but also of the greater glory gained by laying aside the tools of combat for the sake of peace ("swords into plowshares").'
The first certain reference to the picture is in the 1802 Althorp inventory, printed by Kenneth Garlick, when it was described as from the School of Rubens. Following an attribution in 1851 to the School of Pourbus, it was not until the 1947 exhibition of pictures from Althorp at Agnew's that a full attribution to Rubens was advanced. This was accepted by Garlick in his catalogue of the Althorp collection published in 1976, by Frans Baudouin in 1977, and R.-A. d'Hulst M. Vandenven in 1989. The attribution had earlier been accepted by Justus Müller Hofstede, who chose, however to concentrate on another rendering which was to be acquired by the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1979 and whose authenticity had been espoused by Michael Jaffé. However in 1982, Julius Held convincingly demoted the Detroit version, by relegating its status to a studio work, and strenuously advocated the superiority and autograph status of the painting at Althorp (his endorsement of an oil sketch for the head also in Detroit has however not found favour). More recently Rubens's authorship of the painting has been fully supported by Hans Vlieghe.
Held first proposed a date of execution of about 1615. Because of the stylistic connection with Rubens's two paintings of the Virtuous Hero crowned by Victory at Münich and Kassel, a date a little earlier, of circa 1613-14, as Renger has proposed for the former picture, or even 1612-13 as Held himself proposed for the latter, seems acceptable.
Dr. Jilleen Nadolny and Dr. Nicholas Eastaugh, of Art Access and Research (UK) Ltd., have recently complied an X-radiography and Infra-red Imaging Report (available for inspection). The report finds characteristics or idiosyncrasies in the physical make-up of the painting that are to be expected of Rubens working at about this time. These include the markedly streaky imprimatura directly applied with diagonal strokes over a white-coloured ground, with areas where it has run revealed in x-radiographs, to the absence of underdrawing and the relatively inconsiderable pentimenti, which nevertheless emphasise Rubens's attentive engagement with the creative process. These are detected in the outline of the morion, in the dark-haired youth's proper left eye, and in the shadow created by the morion on the lower area of his face and neck, (perhaps) in the position of the neck and shoulders of the other page and in the highlights of the belt buckle on the outside hip of the armour to the left of the baton, which have been suppressed.
The painting's support is made up of four planks of oak, vertically aligned. The oak is from the Baltic region; dendrochronological analysis of three of the planks permits a dating for use of the support from about 1600 (Report by Ian Tyers of Dendrochronological Consultancy Ltd., available for inspection). The upper and lower edges of the panel have been bevelled.
The dominant physiognomy of the main protagonist seems too idealised for it to be considered an actual portrait of an individual (he has wrongly been identified as the Emperor Charles V and, perhaps, as the Duke of Alva); but the type seems not to have appeared again in Rubens's oeuvre. In contrast the page holding the morion must have depended on a favourite head study. It was first used in the Crowning of Thorns, painted for the Roman church of Santa Croce in the Gerusalemme in 1601/2, and it has shown that Rubens was to refer back to the study on at least four further occasions. The model for the head of the other boy seems to have been used for the putto awarding the fasces in the Virtuous Hero Crowned by Victory at Kassel; he also appears as the spectator by the column in the Brussels Woman taken in Adultery. Both appear in the Judgment of Solomon in the Prado.
That the anonymous commander is clad in Italian armour dating from the first decades of the previous century suggests that Rubens was consciously evoking the fabled military culture, and artistic heritage, of the Italian Renaissance. Müller Hofstede has shown that for the pose of the commander, Rubens may have recalled that in Titian's Portrait of Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino in the Uffizi. There Titian included references to the Duke's authority and rule, but here significantly are lacking any allusions to the commander's authority, unless such are the baton or staff and the rich decoration of the armour. The subject is rather unusual, although there are prototypes showing warriors accompanied by their pages.
The most influential example is a tiny Venetian panel painting from the first decade of the sixteenth century depicting a man in armour being dressed for battle by a page, known through many replicas. The original seems to be lost but it may have been an early work by Titian, as Roberto Longhi and Everett Fahy have both proposed. The best-known version of the composition, now in Castle Howard, Yorkshire, was catalogued as a portrait of Gaston de Foix by Giorgione when it was in the Orléans collection in the eighteenth century, where it retained its currency with generations of artists who studied it assiduously. (The French history painter, Antoine Coypel, for example, copied it at least three times.) Despite the greater scale and robust energy of Rubens's masterpiece, its mood of somber anticipation, intense but contained emotion, and gentle intimacy between the warrior and his young servants is strikingly reminiscent of this modest predecessor.
Most closely related is a picture by Paris Bordone in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a page fixes the Christian commander's arm defence while another stands nearby with the helmet; soldiers are massed in the distance. Whether it was this picture which directly inspired Rubens, who integrated the main elements of the composition, or whether both pictures depended on a common literary source - perhaps Homeric or Virgilian - is an open question.
An ability to portray the metallic hue of body armour and the intricacy of its fittings still constituted an important element in an artist's portfolio. Rubens early demonstrated that he had mastered it in his Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma of 1603. Here his mastery is again evident, particularly in the foreshortened gauntlet against the arm and the light reflected there and on the breastplate. Rubens has also playfully included the reflected face of the main protagonist in the morion; he here participated in a Netherlandish tradition of which he would have been well aware, and which stretched back to Jan van Eyck. The reflection is handled in a manner like that adopted by Rubens to portray the soldiers in the doorway to the chamber in which Samson's hair is cut, in the slightly earlier Samson and Delilah in the National Gallery, London.
The early provenance of the Althorp picture remains hypothetical and it is, of course, complicated by the existence of the Detroit version which is inferior in its execution but identical in nearly every other way. The provenance proposed above was accepted by Held with some reservation in 1982 and by Matias Díaz Padrón/Mercedes Royo-Villanova ten years later. There are differences between it and the painting recorded by Willem van Haecht in his 1628 depiction of The Art Cabinet of Cornelis van der Geest (Rubenshuis, Antwerp) in which the staff or baton is shown resting on a table or ledge. Again while the size and support correspond, it is by no means certain that the picture was part of the Orléans collection at the Palais Royal in the following century. No engraving of it appears in Couch's engraved volume of the Northern Schools in the Orléans collection. But what is most likely to have been the unused working prototype for the print shows differences in the hair of both the main protagonist and the elder page.
Nevertheless it may well seem more than a coincidence that a picture which was offered in the Orléans sale in London in 1793 as by Rubens and thought to depict the Duke of Alva, and again in the Bryan sale of 1798 should have turned out to be so similar to one described as of Charles V by the 'School of Rubens' three years later at Althorp. For this reason the Orléans provenance is suggested above.
The attribution to Jordaens seems first to have been advanced by Dubois de Saint-Gelais in his 1727 catalogue of the pictures in the Palais Royal. There he was fully appreciative of Jordaens's particular genius; nevertheless, the picture catalogued by him was one that six years earlier had been greatly admired by Jonathan Richardson Junior when he visited the Palais Royal on his way to Italy. It was then described as by Rubens. Richardson included it in his account of the pictures: 'Portrait of a Man in Armour, Great as Titian Rubens' [this name placed in the margin to identify the artist].
The 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834) was famous for creating the greatest private library in Europe (it became the principal collection of the John Rylands Library in Manchester). But he also seems to have particularly admired portraits of powerful figures, as it is known that he bought the magnificent, full-length Portrait of Claude de Lorraine, Duc de Chevreuse by Frans Pourbus the Younger in 1820, a fitting juxtaposition to the present work.