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Peter Paul Rubens, Crown of thorns (Ecce homo), detail, c. 1612. Oil on panel, 125,7 cm × 96 cm © The State Hermitage Museum, Sankt Petersburg 2017

FRANKFURT.- Almost no other artist exercised such a decisive influence on European Baroque painting as Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) did. The Städel Museum in Frankfurt dedicates a comprehensive special exhibition to the world-renowned artist, which is on show from 8 February to 21 May 2018: Rubens. The Power of Transformation comprises about one hundred items— including thirty-one paintings and twenty-three drawings by the master—and explores a hitherto little-regarded aspect in his creative process. The presentation reveals how profound the dialogue was into which Rubens entered with his predecessors’ and contemporaries’ achievements and fathoms the scope of their impact on the five decades of his production. Rubens’s extensive oeuvre reflects the influences of ancient sculpture as well as that of the later art from Italy and north of the Alps, from the masters towards the close of the fifteenth century to the artists of his own day. Frequently, only a closer look will reveal how Rubens drew on the work of artists of different epochs: the exhibition offers an opportunity to comprehend the sometimes astonishing correlations in detail. The cross-genre presentation brings together paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and objets d’art. In addition to original sculptures dating from classical antiquity to the Renaissance, the show also encompasses paintings and prints by Rubens’s precursors and contemporaries, among them key works by Titian and Tintoretto, by Goltzius, Rottenhammer, and Elsheimer, as well as by Giambologna, Van Tetrode, and Van der Schardt. 

Städel Director Philipp Demandt: “We are able to present an extraordinary artist’s genius in all its facets to our public with this large-scale exhibition project. The comprehensive show offers a fascinating view of Baroque masterpieces that have never ceased to spellbind the viewer.” 

Rubens was one of the most prolific and fascinating artists of the Baroque age who not only influenced numerous subsequent generations in the field but also literally drank in various sources for his pictorial solutions himself. Our exhibition offers the unique opportunity to directly re-enact this creative process in our minds”, says Jochen Sander, curator of the exhibition and Head of German, Dutch and Flemish Paintings before 1800 at the Städel Museum. 

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Centaur tamed by Cupid, c. 1601/02, black chalk on paper, 481 mm x 371 mm. Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Graphische Sammlung © Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln, rba_c016031.

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Roman, Centaur tamed by Cupid, 1st-2nd century AD. Marble, 147 × 107 × 52 cm. Département des Antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines, Museé du Louvre, Paris  © bpk / RMN - Grand Palais

The Exhibition 
Structured after pictorial motifs and themes, the tour takes visitors along well-known mythological subjects such as Venus and Adonis, the Judgement of Paris or Prometheus chained to a rock but also confronts them with crucial topics of the Old and the New Testament such as the beheading of Holofernes or the Entombment of Christ. Rubens’s rendering of Christ in Crown of Thorns (Ecce Homo) (c. 1612) already exemplifies the artist’s creative process in the first room of the show: Three exhibits strikingly visualise Rubens’s transformation of an ancient sculpture depicting a centaur into Christ presented to the people. Rubens first made several drawings exploring the ancient sculpture before the motif was developed into his extraordinary representation of Christ in the painting. Completely redefining the subject iconographically, he converted his ancient model of an unbridled, brutish centaur into an image of the suffering Christ calling for the viewer’s empathy. The return to antiquity ensures an extremely astounding representation of Christ’s body, whose athletic upper part is veritably exposed, put on display. 

 

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Peter Paul Rubens, Crown of thorns (Ecce homo), detail, c. 1612. Oil on panel, 125,7 cm × 96 cm © The State Hermitage Museum, Sankt Petersburg 2017.

The ancient Roman sculpture of a crouching Venus preparing to take a bath provides another impressive example: Showing the same pose but conveying a completely different frame of mind, she has not merely been transmuted into a freezing Venus, the Venus Frigida (1614) but also into the goddess of Love lamenting her lover’s death (Venus mourning Adonis, c. 1614). A similarly arresting chain of motifs unravels from a work by the Flemish painter Michiel Coxcie depicting Cains’s murder of his brother (The Death of Abel, c. 1539). Rubens had acquired the study of the slain Abel by Coxcie in the form of a drawing, which he reworked in accordance with his understanding (Abel Slain by Cain, c. 1609). A short time after, the artist altered his solution to describe a tragically failing hero who has fallen backwards to the ground in an impressive drawing (Study of a falling man, c. 1610/11). It was this study on which he directly modelled two further paintings on display in the exhibition: the brilliantly executed representation of the Death of Hippolytus (1611–1613) and his monumental Prometheus (1611/12–1618). Some years later, no lesser artist than Rembrandt (1606 – ca. 1669) would vie with Rubens’s masterpiece that excited wide admiration: His Blinding of Samson (1636), one of the Städel’s capital works, which can only be understood against the background of the artist’s study of Rubens, has, therefore, been included in the exhibition. 

The direct comparison between works by Rubens and their models offers fascinating insights into the ingenious development of the master’s solutions and surprising motific metamorphoses, as well as his intense endeavours for an adequate format and the right form. The peculiarly modern, dynamic appearance of Rubens’s creations is frequently indebted to the very deliberate return to identifiable models, which the artist—in the understanding of the concept of ‘aemulatio’ crucial within his era’s theory of art—even tried to outdo. Each of the transformation processes resulted in a work that immediately enthralled the contemporary viewer and still fascinates us today.  

The special exhibition is a joint project of the Städel Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, five examples from whose rich holdings of works by Rubens have travelled to Frankfurt. Works by Rubens from the Städel’s collection have also been incorporated into the presentation, among them the oil sketch The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (1628, draft for the high altarpiece of the Church of St Augustine in Antwerp) as well as several important items from its Department of Prints and Drawings.  

It features works from numerous international lenders including the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the National Gallery in London, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Prado and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the State Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Vatican Museums, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. 

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Judith beheading Holofernes, c. 1609/10. Pen and wash in brown on laid paper, 206 mm x 16o mm. Graphische Sammlung, Städel Museum, Frankfurt. Foto: Städel Museum – ARTOTHEK. 

The Artist 
Peter Paul Rubens was born the sixth of seven children in the city of Siegen, Westphalia, in 1577 and died in Antwerp on May 30, 1640. When still a young man, Rubens won international renown as an extraordinarily innovative artist. Yet Rubens was not only a painter but also an art theorist and collector, a respected discussion partner of European scholars and princes, and a diplomat in European employ—all this with Antwerp, the centre of his life, as a starting point. With more than fifty works in churches and museums and the Rubenshuis with its living quarters and adjacent studio, the artist and his work are still present in his hometown in an exceptional manner today. Rubens studied under three teachers, among them the Antwerp painter Otto van Veen (1556–1629). At the age of only twenty-one, he entered the Guild of St Luke, the city’s guild of painters, as a master in 1598, getting to know Antwerp’s intellectual circles. In 1600, he travelled to Italy, where he stayed for eight years. This time—and especially the ancient sculptures he became familiar with then—had a lasting effect on his work. After his return to Antwerp in 1608, Rubens was appointed court painter to Albert, Archduke of Austria, and his wife Isabella Clara Eugenia, Catholic sovereigns of the Southern Netherlands, and married Isabella Brant, the city clerk’s daughter. Rubens had become one of Europe’s most soughtafter painters, who created paintings for kings and princes, political leaders and diplomats. He decided to buy a house in 1610 for his workshop and his family, which he had converted into a small Italian-style city palace. After his first wife had passed away in 1626 and the Archduke of Austria’s death, Rubens became Isabella’s adviser, travelling through Europe in diplomatic mission from 1625 to 1628 to negotiate a possible peace between Spain and England and to campaign for ending the conflicts between the United Provinces in the north and the Southern Netherlands. It was not least thanks to his skill at negotiating that the Treaty of Madrid between England and Spain could be signed in 1630. In 1630, the artist married again: Hélène Fourment, a young woman from a middle-class family, with whom he had five children. Together with his family, Rubens found his last resting place in the memorial chapel of Antwerp’s Saint James’ Church.

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Selfportrait, c. 1638. Oil on canvas, 110 cm x 85,5 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna © KHM-Museumsverband

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Frans Snyders (Eagle) (1579-1657), Prometheus, 1611/12 -1618. Oil on canvas, 242,6 cm x 209,6 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, purchased with the W. P. Wilstach Fund, 1950.

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Death of Hippolytus, 1611-1613. Oil on copper, 50,2 cm x 70,8 cm. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Oil sketch for the Augustinian altarpiece: The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, c. 1628. Oil on oak, 64 cm x 49,2 cm. Städel Museum, Frankfurt © Städel Museum - ARTOTHEK

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The entombment, c. 1612. Oil on canvas, 131,1 cm x 130,2cm. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © J. Paul Getty Museum

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Torso of Laocoön in three-quarter view, c. 1601-02. Black chalk on paper, 456 mm x 296 mm. Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Photo: Herbert Boswank

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The resurrected and triumphant Christ, c. 1615. Oil on canvas, 183 cm x 155 cm. Palazzo Pitti, Florenz © Florenz, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina / su concessione del Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Tourismo.

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Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, Pan and Syrinx, 1617. Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister © MHK, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister / Photo: Ute Brunzel.

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The head of Medusa, 1617/18. Oil on canvas, 68,5 cm x 118 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna © KHM-Museumsverband

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The judgment of Paris, c. 1639. Oil on canvas, 199 cm x 381 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

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Giambologna (nymph), Adriaen de Vries (satyr), Antonio Susini (brass founder), Sleeping nymph and satyr. Before 1587. Bronze, 31,5 x 43,5 x 19,5 cm (with pedestal). Grünes Gewölbe © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Photo: Arrigo Coppitz (Florenz)

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Frans Snyders (still life with monkey), Jan Wildens (landscape), Cimon and Efiginia, c. 1617. Oil on canvas, 208 cm x 282 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna © KHM-Museumsverband

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Venus Frigida, 1614. Oil oak panel, 145,1 cm × 185,6 cm. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), After Tizian, The worship of Venus, c. 1635. Oil on canvas, 196 cm x 209,9 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm © Foto: Nationalmuseum.

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Venus and Cupid, c. 1628. Oil on canvas, 137 cm x 111 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

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Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (1487 – 1576), Venus and Adonis, 1555-1560. Oil on canvas, 160 cm x 196,5 cm. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © J. Paul Getty Museum

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The hero of Virtue, crowned by Victory, c. 1615/16. Oil on canvas, 203 cm x 222 cm. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Photo: Hans-Peter Klut.

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum

 

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum

 

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum

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Exhibition view of „Rubens. The Power of Transformation“. Photo: Städel Museum