RUBENS, Peter Paul; Young woman in a fur wrap (after Titian)
Peter Paul Rubens’s Young woman in a fur wrap (after Titian) c.1629–30, one of the Gallery’s most important old master works, was on loan to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich in 2009 for the exhibition ‘Rubens Challenges the Old Masters: Inspiration and Reinvention’. The Alte Pinakothek houses one of the world’s most important collections of European and particularly Flemish paintings.
Rubens is one of the few artists who warrant such an exhibition, in which ‘copies’ are exhibited with the sources on which they drew. As the title suggests, the exhibition explores Rubens’s ‘value-added’ copies of masterpieces by Titian, Raphael and other Italian masters. Rubens’s copies were more than slavish imitation. His talent and mastery of his medium was accomplished and confident when he experienced their work in Italy, Spain and England. Rubens’s copies of old masters have in this exhibition been presented as ‘challenges’ to them.
Rubens studied and copied the work of Italian painters including Veronese, Mantegna, Michelangelo and Raphael. It was Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, 1488–1576) however, that Rubens appeared to have held a particular fascination and admiration. At the time of Rubens’s death in 1640 there were 33 copies of Titian’s works in addition to eight paintings and two sketches by the Venetian master in the inventory of Rubens’s estate.
For northern painters of the sixteenth century, the work of the Italians was a necessary course of study. One travelled to see and study and copy these objects at close quarters. Copying by doing rather than simply looking was the preferred course for professional painters as it afforded insight into composition, pigments, brush technique, tonal orchestration and colour glazing. While engraved copies of master works circulated at the time, they were entirely inadequate with regard to the colour and texture of pearly flesh or the minute, expressive inflections of a prince’s gaze.
Titian died in August 1576. Rubens was born in June 1577 and was 23 when he went to Italy in 1600, staying for a period of eight years where he was employed in the court of the Mantuan duke, Vincenzo Gonzaga. The duke possessed an impressive collection including works by Mantagna, Raphael and Titian, providing Rubens with his first opportunity to study Titian through numerous examples. Rubens, like Titian was a court painter to kings, dukes and princes in Italy, Spain and England. In addition the young painter from Flanders was a confidante of such political powers and was instrumental in the brokering of peace negotiations between states and countries eager to conquer and expand their territorial power.(1)
In Duke Gonzaga’s service, Rubens was sent to Spain in 1603 on a diplomatic mission. There, a further encounter with the work of Titian, namely his equestrian portrait of Charles V at Mühlberg 1548 (Museo del Prado, Madrid) resulted in Rubens emulating a similar mounted portrait of Philip III’s minister, the Duke of Lerma. This curried great favour with the Spanish court and an invitation for him to stay in Spain. At Gonzaga’s request however, he went back to Italy until 1608 when, on the death of his mother, he returned to Antwerp.
There is not complete agreement as to when Rubens encountered Titian’s Girl with a fur wrap 1535 (now in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), because that work, together with many others in royal collections of the time, was entwined within a complex lineage of European monarchy, political manoeuvring and acquisitive desire.
The late art historian and expert on Dutch and Flemish art, Julius S Held has suggested that Rubens first saw the work in Mantua, in Gonzaga’s collection which included a number of portraits of Venetian courtesans.(2) David Freedberg (Professor of Art History, Columbia University) holds that Rubens’s encounter with it was after its arrival into the collection of Charles I in 1623. In a catalogue essay for the 1992, National Gallery of Australia exhibition, Rubens and the Italian Renaissance, Jeremy Wood (Associate Professor in Art History at the University of Nottingham) also acknowledges the likelihood of Rubens seeing the picture in the British monarch’s collection in 1629.
Charles I purchased the work in Madrid in 1623 from the Conde de Villamediana, a poet and satirist who was murdered during his appointment as gentleman in waiting to Philip IV’s wife, Isabel de Bourbon. This, as Wood also suggests, means that the painting may have been seen there in 1603 when Rubens first visited Madrid.
The complex political arena in which Rubens operated from his years in Italy until his productive English period in the court of King Charles I, is beyond the scope of this article. However, the opportunity to acquire the Duke of Gonzaga’s collection from the duke’s deeply indebted son, Vincenzo II Gonzaga presented itself to Charles in 1627. This collection has been described as ‘one of the most spectacular cargo of paintings ever’ to arrive in England.(3)
Rubens’s copy of Titian’s picture has been broadly recognised by scholars as a model for his late and much discussed depiction of his second wife Hèléne Fourment, known as Het pelskin 1636–38 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Rubens’s Young woman in a fur wrap anticipates, unconsciously, the tenderness and sensuality of his late works. He retained his copies of Titian’s paintings until his death — testimony to the depth of admiration he held for Titian’s work. As one of the most celebrated painters of the Baroque, Rubens established new terms and techniques for the rendering of flesh and light in an age when the body was being increasingly revealed as more corporeal than allegorical.
Titian inspired Rubens to paint a paean of love and tenderness that he kept until his death and stated in his will that it not be put up for sale. He left it to his wife Hèléne, ‘in silent acknowledgment that it was too intimate a work to be sold to another’.(4) But, of course, it was.
David Burnett, Artlines, no.4, 2009, pp.32–33.
This is an edited extract from 'The art of admiration', the fifth article in a series focusing on selected works in the Queensland Art Gallery's international collection.
1 David Freedberg, ‘Rubens and Titian: Art and politics’, Titian and Rubens: Power, Politics and Style, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts, 1998.
2 Julias S Held, ‘Rubens and Titian’, in Titian: His World and His Legacy, ed. David Rosand, Columbia University, New York,1982.
3 Freedberg, p.50.
4 Freedberg, p.59.