Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Rubensís The Massacre of the Innocents at The Thomson Collection


The jewel in the crown in the Thomson Collection is undoubtedly The Massacre of the Innocents, the masterpiece of Peter Paul Rubensís early maturity. The late Ken Thomson bought the work at Sothebyís in London in July 2002 for £49.5 million, at the time the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction*. In September 2003 Thomson generously placed the painting on long-term loan to the National Gallery in London so the unveiling of this magnificent work at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, will be the first time it has been exhibited in North America. It will hang as the focal point at the end of the suite of galleries devoted to Thomsonís European works of art and, to celebrate the unveiling, it will be shown with a number of important loans including Rubensís Samson and Delilah from the National Gallery in London which was painted in the same period. (figs. R1 and R2)

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Flemish painter, draughtsman, humanist and diplomat, was the greatest and most influential figure in Baroque art in northern Europe. The Massacre of the Innocents dates from around 1610 following his return to Antwerp from his eight-year stay as Court Painter to the Duke of Mantua in Italy where he absorbed the influences of the great masters of the Renaissance and contemporary artists as well as that of classical sculpture and architecture. The Massacre distils all he learned on his travels in Italy and is a bravura display designed to astonish his Flemish patrons and contemporaries. This ambitious and complex composition of brilliantly orchestrated interlocking figures was entirely new to Flemish art at the time and marked the advent of Baroque to northern Europe. The almost sculptural figures clearly show Rubensís study of classical sculpture and his admiration for Michelangelo while his pictorial style is in the latest Baroque language of Caravaggio. The Massacre was conceived as a strident comment on the precarious social and political situation in the Netherlands. It can be viewed as an anxious plea against war (one of the soldiers is portrayed as Mars, the Roman god of war) and, in this way, the biblical subject has become as relevant today as it was in 1610.

The earliest recorded owner of The Massacre was Giacomo Antonio Carenna, a Milanese merchant who lived in Antwerp. It is later recorded in correspondence between the three Forchondt brothers, prominent art dealers in Antwerp and Vienna at the end of the 17th century, and they sold both The Massacre and Samson and Delilah to Prince Johann Adam Andreas I of Liechtenstein around 1700. The Massacre still bears the original Liechtenstein family seals and is recorded in various inventories between 1767 and 1837, while drawings of 1815 show that it hung in the Garden Palace in Vienna beside Samson and Delilah.

However, many pictures were mis-attributed by different compilers of the 18th century Liechtenstein inventories and by the time of the 1780 inventory both paintings were attributed to the relatively minor painter Jan van den Hoecke. Samson and Delilah was sold by the Liechtensteins in the 1880s and was recognised by the 1920s as being a Rubens. It was acquired by the National Gallery, London, in 1980 while The Massacre was sold in 1920 to a dealer who sold it on to the father of the individual who sold the painting at auction in 2002. It narrowly missed being bombed during the Second World War, and for some time hung in the Stift Reichersberg, the Augustinian monastery in the Austrian town of Schärding. The Sothebyís expertís research led to the conclusion, now shared by all Rubens scholars, that The Massacre was indeed Rubensís lost early masterpiece.

The Massacre of the Innocents is a dramatic and violent depiction of Herod the Greatís soldiers brutally slaying new-born boys to prevent one of them becoming, as prophesied, King of the Jews. It is at once beautiful and horrific with images of the tearing of flesh, the cutting of skin and the crushing of bone, tempered by exquisite artistry. The near-naked Herculean soldiers execute the babies with remorseless efficiency while the mothers desperately try to fight them off. One woman kneels, cradling her dead son and tearing her hair in grief, as next to her two others plead with an executioner holding a baby aloft before dashing it to death on an altar. The central figure of a woman in a blood-red skirt, collapsing towards us under the weight of another falling woman, is straining to pull her child up towards her with one hand while, with the other, she violently scratches the face of the bearded man who is tugging at the childís swaddling clothes. This brilliant work powerfully portrays a wide range of emotions: violence, grief and desperate love.

The installation of this work will be enhanced not only by the Rubens drawings (fig. R3) in the Thomson Collection but also by major loans. As well as Samson and Delilah from Londonís National Gallery and The Entombment from the National Gallery of Canada, there will be The Horse Trainer, an écorché bronze, by Willem van Tetrode (c.1525-80) from the Hearn Family Trust, New York. (figs. R2, R4 and R5)

The écorché bronze depicts a figure skinned to show the location and interplay of muscles. Rubensís study of these bronzes by Tetrode enabled him to understand both anatomy and the spatial relationships between figures. Tetrode probably made his sculptures, which also appeared as engravings, to aid artists and Rubensís sketches after Tetrodeís figures detail every muscle and sinew. The influence of these écorchés can be clearly seen in the knobbly bones of the elbow and musculature of the torso of the executioner on the right of The Massacre as well as in the fold of flesh where the skull joins the neck of the central female figure.

There are no known surviving studies or sketches produced specifically for The Massacre although there are drawings which relate to the primary sources of some of the figures. Rubens would undoubtedly have made detailed sketches of individual figures as well as more worked-up compositional drawings. His method of picture-making was distinctive. He did not restrict himself to the two dimensions pre-ordained by a flat picture plane, but rather his approach was akin to that of a choreographer or animator of images. His figures were conceived spatially, almost like sculptures which could be rotated, and he seems driven by an imperative to display sculptural virtuosity. The Thomson Collection contains five Rubens anatomical drawings of nudes as well as a drawing of an écorché, all of which will be displayed in the Rubens gallery, together with a study of a left thigh and knee, a right knee in profile and a right foot by Michelangelo.

Of all the treasures Ken Thomson bequeathed to the Art Gallery of Ontario, The Massacre of the Innocents must be the most compelling. Nobody sums it up better than Ken Thomson himself when he said: ĎThere canít be anything that I will leave that will equal the stature of Peter Paul Rubensís The Massacre of the Innocents Ö it is electrifying to look at, absolutely awe-inspiring.í

The accompanying publication Rubensís Massacre of the Innocents: The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario by David Jaffé, Senior Curator at the National Gallery, London, and Amanda Bradley, offers an important opportunity to reassess the painterís early career. Jaffé and Bradley consider the work in its context, discussing the numerous sources and influences Ė both visual and literary Ė on which Rubens drew. They also compare the painting to contemporary works by the artist, such as the London National Galleryís Samson and Delilah, and discuss it in relation to the latterís first owner, Nicolaas Rockox, a humanist and burgomaster of Antwerp and one of Rubensís most enthusiastic patrons. ISBN 978 1 903470 81 7, 128 pages, jacketed paper, 280 x 240 mm, 100 colour illustrations, $40

*This was the highest price paid in £sterling, in US dollars it was the third most expensive painting at $76.7 million. This price has since been superceded but it still remains the world auction record for any Old Master painting.

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