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Work Baptism of Christ

Department of Prints and Drawings: 17th century

Baptême du Christ

Prints and Drawings
17th century

Author(s):
Chabod Christine

A masterpiece of seventeenth-century European art, this drawing, one of the most important surviving works of Rubens's early period, is remarkable both for its format and stylistic qualities. Despite evident antique and Italian Renaissance influences, the drawing anticipates all the characteristics of the artist's mature style in its confident, vigorous line, monumental figures, and masterful composition.

An imposing baptism scene

This carefully-structured composition is organized around two groups of figures. To the left, the naked Christ stands in the waters of the river Jordan, while three angels hold his robes. On the riverbank, John the Baptist baptizes Christ by sprinkling water on his head, while looking up into the sky, where the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove. To the right, a group of men undress before entering the water to be baptized. A group of women approaches in the distance.

A unique, controversial work

In 1604-5, during a stay in Italy in the service of the Duke of Mantua, Vincenzo I Gonzaga, Rubens painted three pictures for the Cappella Maggiore, in the city's church of S. Trinità: The Duke of Mantua and His Family Worshiping the Holy Trinity (Museo del Palazzo Ducale, Mantua), a Transfiguration (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy), and a Baptism of Christ (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp). Despite having been carefully squared for enlargement, the present drawing is radically different from the Antwerp painting and should not be regarded as a definitive study or cartoon: the figure of the young man seated in the center of the drawing is omitted from the final canvas, and two cherubs have been added above the Holy Spirit. Slight differences are also discernible in the pose of St. John the Baptist and the disposition of the group of women in the background. Some commentators have attributed the drawing to an engraver, possibly Van Dyck, while others see it as the work of a pupil, copied and adapted from his master's composition or from another drawing, now lost. Such highly-finished drawings by Rubens are indeed rare, particularly when related to a complete painted composition. Nevertheless, the present work has been generally accepted as an autograph drawing since the early twentieth century.

Italian sources

The profound influence of sixteenth-century Italian art on the young Rubens (who lived and worked in Italy from 1601-8) is well documented. The group of male figures on the right of the picture is clearly inspired by Michelangelo, while the figure of Christ recalls the work of Sebastiano del Piombo. The masterful foreshortening, and the configuration of the free-floating angels reflect Rubens's careful study of decorations by Giulio Romano in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua. The picture mingles Renaissance influences with echoes of antique art: the seated man holding his foot is an adaptation of a classical figure, the Spinario (a youth removing a thorn from his foot). The man pulling a shirt over his head is derived from the Farnese Hercules, and the young woman in the background recalls certain representations of Leda. Highly finished and detailed, the picture is striking for a use of black chalk that achieves a precision of line comparable to drypoint.

Bibliography

Lugt Frits, Musée du Louvre. Inventaire général des dessins des écoles du Nord. École flamande, vol. II, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1950, notice 1009.
P. P. Rubens. Peintures, esquisses à l'huile, dessins, cat. exp. Anvers, sous la dir. de Roger-Adolf D'Hust, Musée royal des beaux-arts, juin-septembre 1977, notice 121.
Sérullaz Arlette (Calvet), in Dessins du Louvre, école allemande, flamande, hollandaise. Paris, Flammarion, 1968, notice 52.
Sérullaz Arlette (Calvet), in Collections de Louis XIV : dessins, albums, manuscrits. cat. exp. Paris, musée de l'Orangerie, octobre 1977-janvier 1978, notice 144.
Sérullaz Arlette (Calvet), in Rubens, ses maîtres, ses élèves : dessins du musée du Louvre. LXVe exposition du Cabinet des dessins, cat. exp. Paris, musée du Louvre, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, février-mai 1978, notice 4.

Technical description

  • Petrus-Paulus RUBENS(Siegen [Westphalia], 1577-Antwerp, 1640)

    Baptism of Christ

    1604-5

  • Black chalk with white highlights, squared in black chalk

    H. 48.6 cm; W. 76.7 cm

  • Everhard Jabach collection; recorded in the King's Chamber, 1671

    3920187

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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