Innovating from antiques, Rubens was masterfully inspired by a wealth of sources

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 – 1640), The Calydonian Boar Hunt, c. 1611-1612, oil on panel, 23 5/16 × 35 5/16 in., 2006.4, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Rubens’ paintings and drawings rediscover the antiques that inspired them

The passion of the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) for the classical past shaped his personal values ​​and provided him with powerful artistic inspiration. Rubens: Representing Antiquity to Getty Villa Museum this fall is the first exhibition to focus on Rubens’ fascination with the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. This one-place presentation shows some of the intriguing ways the innovative artist both celebrated and transformed her various sources, including antiques from her own collection.


Rubens was one of the most learned artists of the 17th century. Throughout his life he read classical literature in the original languages, studied the physical remains of the ancient (mainly Roman) civilization, collected marble sculptures and carved gems, and maintained a lively correspondence with other antique dealers across Europe.

“This important exhibition examines how Rubens’ fascination with Roman antiquities inspired his many classical paintings, which are among the most scholarly and sophisticated images in European art,” say Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle, director of J. Paul Getty. Museum. “Rubens had an extraordinary ability to translate ancient sculptures and gems into vibrant, colorful compositions, adopting the classic attributes of rugged strength and idealized beauty as hallmarks of his own art. First exhibition devoted to this key aspect of European painting, Rubens: Representing Antiquity will be a rare opportunity to explore the impact that ancient art had on the expressive Baroque style of Rubens.

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 – 1640) Self-portrait in a circle of friends in Mantua, 1602-1605. Wallraf-Richartz Museum.

In 1600 Rubens traveled to Italy and was soon employed as a court artist by Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua. Over the next eight years in Italy he avidly studied a variety of ancient marble sculptures and reliefs in Mantua and Rome. This exhibition brings together for the first time the ancient sarcophagus panel depicting Meleager’s hunt for the fierce Calydonian boar that the artist saw in Rome and Getty’s The Calydonian boar hunt by Rubens (acquired in 2006). The association provides a shining example of Rubens’ transformation of an ancient sculpture into a living composition that fascinates viewers.

During his stay in Rome, Rubens was able to access important private collections of antiques. This immersive experience had a profound impact on his art. Presented in the exhibition, Self-portrait with a group of friends in Mantua, his first self-portrait, testifies to the camaraderie that Rubens found in a circle of scholars and artists devoted to the ideals of classical antiquity.

Rubens took an innovative approach to drawing from classical sources. He has studied individual sculptures over and over again, copying them from many and often unusual points of view, with meticulous attention to both their overall composition and specific details. “He sought to convey a sense of flesh and blood to these characters, portraying them with dynamism, pathos and drama,” notes Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings and president of curatorial affairs at the Getty Museum and co-curator of the exhibition. . “These qualities became the hallmarks of Rubens’ art. The exhibition features remarkable chalk drawings that show Rubens’ process of studying well-known and famous ancient sculptures.

Diana and her nymphs on the hunt; Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 – 1640); 1627-1628; Oil on canvas; 237.5 × 183.8 cm (93 1/2 × 72 3/8 in); 71.PA.14; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Jeffrey Spier, senior curator of antiques at the Getty Museum and co-curator of the exhibition, emphasizes the importance of rare and wearable antiques to Rubens’ pictorial inventions. “Rubens was an avid collector of ancient gemstones, each a unique hand-carved work. He appropriated and reinterpreted the imagery of these rare objects as well as ancient coins for his own compositions. Rubens’ painting of a spectacular cameo, known as Gemma Tiberiana, will be presented in the exhibition. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the Gemma Constantiniana, a huge cameo possibly belonging to Rubens, and a key source of inspiration for him.

Rubens’ elaborate designs for the triumphal entry into the city of Antwerp to celebrate Cardinal Infant Ferdinand in 1635 were the most ambitious and eloquent expression of his deep knowledge of the political theater of the classical past. The exhibition includes Rubens’ animated oil sketches for the welcome scene, as well as the commemorative volume, Pompa Introitus Ferdinandi (1642), written by Jan Gaspar Gevaerts and illustrated with engravings of triumphal arches and other elements by Theodoor van Thulden (Getty Research Institute).

Ancient stories about the life and loves of the gods provided Rubens with stimulating painting subjects. He synthesized these familiar literary sources and incorporated overt references to ancient sculpture to convey his very individual vision of a living classical past. Diana and her nymphs on the hunt, acquired by J. Paul Getty, will be visible for the first time after the cleaning and restoration of the frame. The exhibition features important international loans, including the important antique statue Silenus with a skin of Dresden, illustrated with Rubens ‘chalk drawing and oil painting of the Drunken Silenus, and Rubens’ extraordinary interpretation of an ancient fertility myth, The discovery of Erichthonius (Vaduz-Vienna).

“Rubens had a unique way of bringing the ancient works that inspired him to life,” says Anne Woollett, curator of paintings at the Getty Museum and co-curator of the exhibition. “This exhibition vividly shows how he manipulated his ancient sources and brilliantly reinvented the classical past.”

Rubens: Representing Antiquity will be exhibited at the Getty Villa Museum from November 10, 2021 to January 24, 2022. A catalog, edited by Anne T. Woollett, Davide Gasparotto and Jeffrey Spier, with an essay by Adriano Aymonino and Eloisa Dodero (Getty Publications), accompanies the exhibition .

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