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Rubens - an introduction to works in the Courtauld Gallery

Rubens - an introduction to works in the Courtauld Gallery

Lucy Cutler

The Rubens we see at the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery is very different to the popular caricature of the painter of huge naked women. His oil sketches and drawings allow us to examine the process of making in his work, whereas the prints made after his paintings and oil sketches made for monumental commissions offer an insight into his role at the head of a large studio. Above all the collection focuses attention on Rubens’ working method - a central academic interest of Antoine Seilern, the man who acquired and bequeathed to the Courtauld Institute most of the works by Rubens now in the collection.

(Rubens work as a landscape artist and portraitist and his activities as a collector and connoisseur will be covered by Lucy Cutler in future Insights.)

Rubens and his work in progress

Rescuing Rubens


Oil sketch: A small-scale preparatory work in oil paint. Rubens oil sketches are usually executed on panel, prepared with a chalk ground and a thin layer of underpaint in a neutral colour. They range from very summary descriptions of figures in browns and white (St Barbara Grisaille) to elaborately painted small-scale versions of larger compositions in full colour (Descent from the Cross)

Grisaille: A painted work in monochrome. Most frequently this will be in shades of black and white (hence the name which means painting in grey) but in some cases it may include monochromatic works in other neutral shades, such as brown and white

Foreshortening: A distortion of the proportions of an object or figure allowing it to appear three dimensional and correctly proportioned when seen from an extreme angle, for instance the figure of St Paul in Rubens finished painting who is placed at a right angle to the picture plane and therefore whose body needs to be shortened so that the feet appear to be the correct distance from the head

Di sotto in su: A type of ceiling painting designed to create the illusion that the figures are suspended above the viewer and seen from below. Rubens ceiling paintings for the Jesuit Church and the ceiling for the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall are both di sotto in su ceilings. This is the opposite to a quadrati riportati ceiling in which pictures painted using the same perspective as wall paintings are depicted inset into the ceiling in the way that Michelangelo does in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Reading list

Courtauld Institute Galleries, The Princes Gate Collection, 01/01/1981 www.amazon.co.uk

Kristin Lohse Belkin, Rubens (Art & Ideas), pub. Phaidon Press, 27/10/1998 www.amazon.co.uk

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