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22 mars 2024

'Bruegel to Rubens: Great Flemish Drawings' at Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526–69) The Temptation of St Anthony, c. 1556, pen in brown ink on laid paper © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

OXFORD - The Ashmolean’s spring 2024 exhibition will be devoted to some of the finest works of art produced by Flemish masters. Bruegel to Rubens will show 120 of the most outstanding drawings from the 16th and 17th centuries, with over 30 on display for the first time, including some which have only recently been discovered. The majority of the drawings will come from the extraordinary holdings of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp. They will be joined with the Ashmolean’s unique collections and loans from the Bodleian, Christ Church and private lenders. Many of the drawings from Belgium are topstukken – masterpieces designated by the Flemish Government for their exceptional quality and value.


The exhibition will show a remarkable range of artworks rarely seen in public because of their fragility and sensitivity to light. Among the works on show will be drawings by three of the most famous Flemish artists: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–69), Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641).  The exhibition will also present numerous drawings by other talented draughtsmen, such as Maerten de Vos (1532–1603), Hans Bol (1534–94), and Jacques Jordaens (1593–1678).


Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Study of the Head of Henri IV, c. 1622, black chalk & faint grey wash, heightened with white chalk, on laid paper © Collection City of Antwerp, Museum Plantin-Moretus


These drawings were produced during a period of great change and prosperity in the region known as the Southern Netherlands. This area was a hub of artistic production driven by high demand from the established rural aristocracy, newly monied urban patricians, and many religious orders and professional guilds. All were eager to commission sacred and secular paintings, sculpture and decorative artworks which required preparation in drawing.

This exhibition will be a first for grouping South Netherlandish drawings according to their function in the artist’s studio and beyond, presented in three galleries: as sketches and copies; as preparations for other works; and as independent works of art in their own right. In doing so, the exhibition provides an insight into how these artists honed their drawing skills throughout their careers.


Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641) after Titian, Christ and the Adulterous Woman, c. 1622–23 © Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp.


The 120 works on display range from quick scribbles to elaborate studies: from sensitive portraits to compositional studies for paintings; colourful designs for triumphal arches and monumental tapestries; and elaborate sheets made to celebrate friendships. These will be shown together with a selection of related works for which the drawings were designs; and with artworks which inspired them. Overarching themes running across the exhibition include the personal connections and networks forged between these artists, often resulting in collaborations. Many of them travelled extensively, settled abroad and became court artists across Europe, emphasising the broader international achievements of South Netherlandish artists.

To begin with, the show considers studies, made in the studio or out of doors (en plein air), and includes copies of other artworks, such as antique sculpture. A highlight is an album containing tiny drawings by Rubens from around 1590, including his earliest work produced when he was aged just 13: 'The Abbot and Death', inspired by a Hans Holbein woodcut. Rubens makes the scene his own, enlivening the action and rendering the skeleton figures more dynamic. There will also be a reconstruction of Rubens’s drawing desk, featuring Ancient Roman busts and coins from the Ashmolean’s collections, similar to those the artist is known to have collected and copied.


Jan Brueghel I (1568–1625), Hilly Landscape, c. 1615–18, pen & brush in brown ink, with brown & blue wash, on laid paper © Ashmolean Museum


The exhibition then explores design-drawings created in preparation for works in other media, including paintings, prints, sculpture, architecture and decorative arts, such as metalwork, stained glass and tapestries.

One of the most striking examples is Bruegel’s 'The Temptation of St Anthony' (c. 1556), a hellish vision of demonic creatures across a bleak landscape which recalls the work of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516). The drawing is meticulously rendered in pen and brown ink, intended to be made into an engraving by a professional printmaker.  The Ashmolean has recently acquired an impression of the print, which will be on display for the first time in the exhibition. In another world first, six tapestry cartoons, designed for one of the Vatican’s ‘Scuola Nuova’ series, will be reunited, revealing how weavers would have used them to create the final work.


Maerten de Vos (1532–1603), Cadmus and Hermione: Design for the Decorations of the City of Antwerp on the Occasion of the Joyous Entry of Archduke Ernest of Austria in Antwerp, c. 1594. © Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp


Finally, the exhibition looks at drawings made as independent works of art, often for presentation or as gifts to patrons, friends and other artists. Among these are highly finished and painterly ‘cabinet miniatures,’ including a particularly fine example by Joris Hoefnagel – 'An Arrangement of Flowers in a Vase with Insects' (1594). This forms part of a display of sheets from ‘friendship albums’ with contributions from many South Netherlandish artists that would have circulated among friends and colleagues.

An Van Camp, Christopher Brown Curator of Northern European Art at the Ashmolean and Exhibition Curator of Bruegel to Rubens, says: ‘This will be the first time these magnificent drawings from Antwerp are brought together with those from the Ashmolean, including some which have only recently been discovered and acquired. Thanks to the generous loan from the Museum Plantin-Moretus, visitors will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get close to these delicate and rarely displayed works by famous Flemish masters, as well as those by lesser-known artists who deserve a wider audience.’

23 March–23 June 2024.


Joannes Fijt (1611–61), Study of a Dog, c. 1630/61, drawing. © Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp.

Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1600), Arrangement of Flowers in a Vase with Insects, 1594, transparent & opaque watercolours, with gold ink, on vellum © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Jacques Jordaens (1593–1678), Odysseus’s Ship Stocked with Provisions by King Alcinous(?), c. 1630–5, drawing. © Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Belvedere Torso, c. 1601–2, black chalk (or charcoal) on laid paper. © Collection City of Antwerp, Rubenshuis.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), after Hans Holbein, The Abbot and Death, c. 1590, drawing. © Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp

Hans Bol (1534–93), Distant View of Antwerp, c. 1575–80 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Woodland Scene, c. 1635–40 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Workshop of Tomasso di Andrea Vincidor (1493– 1536), Fragment of a Tapestry Cartoon: Bust of a Woman in Profile. © Christ Church, Oxford.

Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, 1629-30, pen & brush in brown ink, with brown wash, over black & red chalk, on laid paper © Ashmolean Museum

Hendrick van Balen I, Diana and Actaeon, 1605, pen in brown ink with brown & blue washes, heightened with white opaque watercolour, on laid paper © Collection City of Antwerp, Museum Plantin-Moretus

Cornelis de Vos, Study of a Young Girl, c.1663-5, black & red chalk on laid paper © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Anthony van Dyck, Christ Mocked, 1618-20, black, red & white chalk, with brown wash, on laid paper © Ashmolean Museum.

Jacques Jordaens, Head of a Bald Man, c. 1645, red chalk, with black chalk, on laid paper © Ashmolean Museum.

Jan Brueghel I, View of the Roman Baths at Baiae, c.1604-5, pen in brown ink, with blue & grey wash, on laid paper © Ashmolean Museum.

Peter Paul Rubens, Venus nursing three putti; Crescetis Amores (friendship book), 1616, black chalk with pen in brown ink, heightened with white opaque watercolour, on brown-tinted laid paper © Private Collection, Antwerp.