Described by Julius Held as a 'brilliant study that has not received the acclaim it deserves', the Two studies of a man is one of Rubens's most forceful and arresting head studies and yet still one of the least well-known. Nothing whatsoever was known of it until its appearance in a sale at Christie's in 1934. The consignor to that sale had bought it in a local saleroom in the West Country before offering it in a mixed sale of prints and pictures (as was not uncommon at the time) at Christie's with a suggested attribution to Rubens. Its sale price of over £1500 exceeded the reserve by more than fifteen times, and the story of the sale became briefly newsworthy. The picture was published for the first time the following year in the Burlington Magazine and it was acquired shortly afterwards by Anton Philips. Rather unusually (for Philips only rarely agreed to lend to exhibitions), he lent it to Leo van Puyvelde's exhibition of Rubens sketches in Brussels in 1937 and then to Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann's exhibition of the same theme in Rotterdam in 1953. Since then, with the exception of one brief excursion to a Rubens show in Italy, it has remained undisturbed in the Philips collection in Holland. Its return to Christie's for sale will be its first appearance on the art market for over seventy years.
This study of a young Levantine or south Mediterranean man from two angles was painted by Rubens in Antwerp around 1615-1617. The subject of Rubens's scrutiny seems to have been a workman or a sailor, obviously poor, but able-bodied, with several days growth of beard and wearing a functional, open-neck shirt and a rudimentary cap. How it came about that the great artist asked him to pose in his Antwerp studio must remain a mystery. Perhaps the sitter was one of the workmen engaged in building the extension to the artist's still existent house on the Wapper or the soon to be admired garden screen there. The session in the studio would not have lasted long; the man was first painted full-face as the artist would have first encountered him. His steady, direct gaze - with the head tilted slightly to the right - and his swarthy features are faithfully rendered to convey a strong psychological presence. Then he was asked to remove his cap and turn sideways so that his features could be observed in profile and the dark, rich head of hair could be recorded. Now the sitter cast his head and gaze downwards. Rubens may have spent an hour or so on this spontaneous, vivid portrayal of a facial type that may well not have been unusual even in the cosmopolitan port of Antwerp, the temporary home of many different nationalities from all over Europe, but particularly from Spain, whose troops still manned the great citadel to the west of the city on the river Scheldt.
Rubens's studio at the time - around 1615 was a busy place with a large number of apprentices of varying ages. Perhaps the artist was watched by a group of them as he worked on this sketch. One such young artist, probably an apprentice, Anthony van Dyck, was particularly impressed by Rubens as he painted in this way. Still extant are a number of head studies, sometimes doubled in one support as here, made by Van Dyck at about this time, like the bearded, elderly man, seen in profile and three-quarter profile, at Lyons, which was to be owned by the Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, the Archduke Leopold-Wilhelm (d.1662), or the dark bearded man, seen from two angles looking down, at Memphis (S. Barnes, O. Millar, N. de Poorter, H. Vey, Van Dyck, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2004, nos. 1.90 and 1.91).
Van Dyck assisted Rubens with a number of his commissions, precisely for how long in the early phase of his career and for how many has never been satisfactorily agreed among art historians. It is thought that Van Dyck could have moulded his style to that of his master, and Walter Liedtke (private communication) has raised the question as to whether the present sketch could be by him. But it may have been executed before Van Dyck's collaborative association with Rubens was fully established, and the spontaneous, yet deliberate and decisive handling speaks of the master rather than his precocious assistant.
In these years too the slightly older Jacob Jordaens may have had access to Rubens's studio and he too was to make similar head studies, as, for example, the double study of Abraham Grapheus in the Ghent Museum. Some, but not all of these brilliant displays of characterisation are on paper laid down on panel; others, like the Philips Rubens, are painted on a primed panel in which the faces are set against the prepared ground, of which some is left bare.
Such oil sketches of heads, usually of men, were thus popularised by Rubens, and indeed in the Specification of works from the artist's collection to be sold after his death in 1640 was listed, but not numbered: 'Une quantité des visages au vif, sur toile, & fonds de bois, tant de Rubens, que de Mons. Van Dyck' (the translation commissioned by Sir Bathasar Gerbier for King Charles I of Great Britain read: 'A parcel of faces made after the life, vppon bord and Cloth as well by sr Peter Paul Rubens as van Dyck', J. Müller, The Artist as Collector, 1989, p. 145). Those by Van Dyck must have been kept by Rubens from the time when the much younger artist was in his studio; they seem all to have been kept together unframed, and thus stored as a resource rather than as something to be displayed.
As we see in a letter from Rubens to his pupil, Lucas Fayd'herbe, written towards the end of his life in 1638, the great painter was still using such head studies, for he asked his young assistant to bring to the country three life-size studies of heads which he needed for a painting on which he was working. Indeed as the artist found his feet as a young man in Italy, he began to populate his compositions not with stereotypical physiognomies, but with 'real' people inspired by observing everyday faces. By the time of his return to Antwerp, Rubens was fully in his stride as an artist who specialised in portraying a great variety of human types in his compositions; this is one of the hallmarks of his art.
In this respect Rubens could have been inspired by an older artist, Federico Barocci, who was still active in Urbino when Rubens was in Italy and whose art Rubens admired. Barocci's biographer Bellori recorded: 'when he [Barocci] was outside in the piazza or in the street...he would study the countenances and physique of the various people he saw there. If he happened to see someone who was in some way striking, he would try to get that person to his house in order to draw him or her' (N. Turner, Federico Barocci, 2000, p. 189). There are a number of remarkable, extant oil sketches by Barocci of heads, made preparatory to the execution of his large compositions, which Rubens could have admired.
Rubens may have been influenced by such head studies whether in oil on canvas or chalk on paper. Indeed one study by Rubens, in oil on paper, of a turbaned moor is thought to have been painted while the artist was in Rome, as it is on Roman paper (later stuck down on panel). It was to return with Rubens to Antwerp, where the artist was to use it as a model for Balthasar in the great Adoration of the Magi for the Town Hall of the city, which commission he received very soon after his return in the winter of 1608 (see fig. 1).
Rubens would have found Barocci's sketching from the life validated by his own Netherlandish, artistic antecedents. Head studies in oil on panel may have been made by Pieter Bruegel the Elder; furthermore Müller-Hofstede has published early seventeenth century Antwerp inventory records of head studies described as by Massys, Mabuse, Pourbus, Key, Beuckelaer and Martin de Vos, but these for the most part no longer survive (J. Müller-Hofstede 'Zur Kopfstudie von Werk von Rubens', Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, XXX, 1968, pp. 226-27). We know - and Rubens would have too - from Karel van Mander's Schilderboeck, of 1603-4, that Frans Floris, who dominated the Antwerp art scene in the first decades after about 1550, kept a stock of head studies in his studio. Van Mander related that: 'Frans [Floris] set his journey-men to do the dead colouring after he had indicated to them his intention somewhat in chalk, letting them get on with it, after having said "Put in these and those heads"; for he always had a good few of those to hand on panels' (Karel van Mander, The Lives of the Illustrations Netherlandish and German Painters..., with an Introduction and Translation edited by H. Miedema, I, 1994, p. 229). Rubens would not have chosen Floris as a model to be followed on a personal basis as he drank too much; nevertheless he seems to have adopted his studio practice, even if he exerted much more control over the execution of the paintings in his workshop.
Not all of Rubens's extant head studies in oils can be related to one of his large compositions. The Head of a Man (fig. 2; Glenn Falls), exhibited in Drawn by the Brush, Bruce Museum, Greenwich Conn., (among other venues) 2004, is a case in point; and apparently not all of the four studies in the most famous example of this type of work, the painting in the Brussels Museum (fig. 3), were used by Rubens.
Julius Held (loc. cit.) was first to point out that Rubens found a use for the full face sketch in the Philips picture as the model for Balthasar in the Adoration of the Magi at the Museé des Beaux-Arts, Lyons (see fig. 4). The subject of the sketch is now splendidly arranged as Balthasar in oriental tunic and turban. He is indeed a prominent, new arrival in the numerous and mostly familiar cast that Rubens assembled in the stable for this grand altarpiece over three meters long, and probably executed circa 1617-18.