An important addition to Rubens' known oeuvre, this unpublished oil sketch is new to scholars and collectors alike. Brimming with dynamic activity, it represents the Assumption, the name given to the Virgin's ascent into heaven, accompanied by angels, three days after her death. Recounted in the Apocrypha of the New Testament, the Assumption was popularized in the thirteenth century by Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend. According to the text, the Virgin's body and soul rose to heaven together, a point Rubens masterfully underscored in the present work by capturing the arduous effort of the angels who labor to keep her afloat. Below, the Apostles and several holy women witness the event in awe, some gazing upward and others toward the empty tomb before them, save for one female figure who stares outward over her shoulder, drawing the viewer into the scene.
A popular theme for Catholic artists during the Counter Reformation, the Assumption captivated Rubens throughout his career and he returned to it repeatedly, producing seven altarpieces of the subject (see B. Baumgärten, ed., Himmlisch Herrlich Höfisch: Peter Paul Rubens, Johann Wilhelm von der Pfalz, Anne Maria Luisa de' Medici, Leipzig, 2008, pp. 132-135). A likely inspiration was Titian's altarpiece of the Assumption in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari of 1515-1518 in Venice; the apostle reaching upward in the foreground in the present picture resembles the figure in Titian's iconic altarpiece. Rubens' first extant rendering of the subject is a modello from around 1611, now in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, for an altarpiece for Antwerp Cathedral that was never realized. A related example of Rubens' depiction of the subject is the altarpiece now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna which was likely begun around 1611 and remained in his studio until 1620 (see A.M. Logan, Peter Paul Rubens: The Drawings, New Haven and London, 2004, p. 157), of which the upturned face and outstretched arm of the Virgin resemble the present work. Based on style, this oil sketch likely dates to this period around 1620, during which Rubens was at the height of his career in Antwerp working for major church and court patrons at home and abroad.
Of Rubens' many Assumption renderings, the strongest connection can be made between the present work and Rubens' altarpiece of 1635-1637 now in the Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna, and originally for the Church of the Carthusians in Brussels (fig. 1). Two other oil sketches can be associated with this commission, now in the collection of the Courtauld Gallery, London (fig. 2) and the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven (fig. 3). Given the date of the Liechtenstein altarpiece, it can be hypothesized that if Rubens began the present oil sketch around 1620, he could have used elements of it years later when creating the altarpiece for the Carthusian church. Such a practice was common for Rubens, who often kept working materials in his studio and mined them over the years as needed; for instance he returned to the Hermitage modello for the later altarpiece now in Vienna.
Rubens maintained an ongoing engagement with the subject of the Assumption, continually experimenting with various related compositions. Looking at the present work alongside the Yale and Courtauld oil sketches and the Liechtenstein altarpiece, it is possible to see common elements, particularly in the lower portion, such as the penetrating outward gaze of the female onlooker, the bearded apostle standing in profile at right, the apostle beside him shading in his eyes, and the rectangular form of the tomb lid at left. Viewing the group together reveals Rubens' uncanny ability to play with forms to create variation. The Virgin and the crowd below rotate in space, while the different versions present the figures at a variety of angles, alternately revealing more and less of the figure lifting the tomb. Color was another area of experimentation: while the yellow and blue of the foreground figure remains constant, the red and blue of the dresses of the pair of women at left alternate in the various sketches.
The group of works also demonstrates the vital role that oil sketches played in Rubens' multi-stage working process. An avid draftsman, Rubens would usually begin an artistic endeavor with chalk drawings. After devising an initial concept, he would employ the oil sketch as a means to establish the entire composition. Oil sketches with some degree of finish could then be shown to clients as a means to gain their approval of the design and subsequently used, often in tandem with additional drawings, as tools to finalize the composition of the figures. At this point he would produce the finished version, often relying on the assistance of his studio for larger projects. Due to Rubens' personal involvement, oil sketches have been highly valued among collectors as direct expressions of the artist.
Many elements in the current sketch can be found in other works by Rubens. The swirling mass of white drapery and blue costume of the Virgin appears in a lost sketch by Rubens engraved in reverse by Willem Panneels (D. Freedberg, Rubens: the Life of Christ after the Passion, CRLB, VII, London and New York, 1984, no. 44). The angel immediately beneath her was also carried over into the present sketch, while his companion may be found in the earlier modello for Antwerp Cathedral and the angel carrying folds of the costume on his back is in reverse to one in the same work. The prototype for the angel on the left peeping out from beneath drapery is depicted beside the Virgin in the Yale work and clearly delineated on a sheet in the Albertina, Vienna (Logan, op. cit., pp. 155-161, no. 43). The angel below, holding up folds of the costume, resembles Rubens' gambolling boy bearing the festoon on his shoulders in the Banqueting Hall, ceiling of 1633 in London. Such references are a hallmark of Rubens' work, as the artist was blessed with a prodigious visual memory and an astonishing ability to rotate and re-purpose motifs.
The myriad versions of the Assumption by Rubens, which now count among them the exciting addition of the present work, reveal the extent of Rubens' technical genius and showcase his ability to manipulate his inner store of imagery to experiment relentlessly, injecting conventional subjects with new and inventive compositions.
We are grateful to Arnout Balis and Professor Hans Vlieghe for confirming the attribution to Rubens based on first-hand examination (22 November 2011).