Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, Siegen 1577 - 1640 Antwerp)
The Finding of Erichthonius, 1632-33
Oil on canvas
43 1/16 x 40 11/16 in. (109.3 x 103.4 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1944
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The story of the discovery of the snake-legged infant Erichthonius, son of Vulcan and Gaea, by the daughters of the Attic King Cecrops is retold by numerous classical authors from Euripides to Ovid. This vibrant canvas is the only extant fragment of a much larger composition painted by Rubens in about 1632-33. The robust figures, loose brushwork, and saturated palette are typical of the Flemish artist's late works.
The story of Erichthonius was treated by Rubens on two separate occasions, each time with a series of related works that document the artist's development of the image.1 The first series culminated in a painting of about 1616, now at Liechtenstein;2 the second, which can be dated to about 1632-33, resulted in a painting that survives only in the fragment now at Oberlin.3 This important composition was cut down sometime between 1677 and 1786 (see Technical Data); its original format is recorded in several early copies.4
In discussing the Oberlin picture, Burchard, Stechow, Alpers, and others assumed that Rubens relied on one or more of the classical texts as the source for his painting, but noted that the artist--usually so attentive to every nuance and implication of the narrative--had here omitted any indication of the tragic outcome for the sisters of Erichthonius.5 Held has convincingly shown, however, that Rubens based his representations of the theme (both the Liechtenstein and Oberlin versions) solely on Ovid's retelling of the tale in the Metamorphoses, in which the sisters' disobedience goes unpunished.6 Held also correctly identified each of the three sisters in the original composition in a copy of Rubens's final conception, who had been wrongly named since Roger de Piles's seventeenth-century description of the work, fully visible while it was in the Richelieu collection.7 The inquisitive Aglauros, clad in a shimmering yellow gown, opens the lid of the basket; Pandrosos, seen from the back, reclines in the foreground of the scene. Herse, the most beautiful of the sisters and later to become the lover of Mercury, is shown standing behind the basket at the left.The old nurse is not mentioned in any of the classical accounts; but Rubens frequently included the figure of a wizened crone in such scenes to underscore the youth and beauty of her charges. Rubens's original composition also contained references to Vulcan and Gaea, the unwitting parents of Erichthonius, in the form of herms on the portico facade in the background of the scene.
Burchard was the first to attempt to clarify the relationship between the various sketches and copies related to the Oberlin fragment.8 An oil sketch in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, probably represents Rubens's first conception for the work.9 It shows the three sisters in a close, pyramidal grouping, before the inclusion of the old nurse; the fountain at the right is also somewhat different. A painting in the collection of the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle, long thought to be a modello, or more finished sketch, for the Oberlin picture, is probably a copy by another hand.10 In Rubens's final conception (known through several copies), the figures of the sisters are more widely spaced and Herse more nearly centered before the arched opening at the rear; there are other minor adjustments as well.11 The rich, saturated palette, sumptuous conception, and tender, elegiac mood of the Finding of Erichthonius--all characteristic of Rubens's works of the 1630s--reflect the artist's debt to pastoral paintings by sixteenth-century Venetian artists such as Titian and Veronese. The Oberlin painting can probably be dated to about 1632-33; the figure of Aglauros is especially similar in pose and appearance to St. Catherine in the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine of 1631 or 1633 (Toledo Museum of Art, inv. 50.272). Rubens's young wife Hélène Fourment has been proposed as the model for this figure in the Toledo painting.12
M. E. Wieseman
One of the most versatile and accomplished figures in the history of art, Peter Paul Rubens was born at Siegen in Germany on 28 June 1577. His father, Jan Rubens, had fled Antwerp to escape persecution because of his Calvinist faith. The Rubens family moved to Cologne in 1578, and returned to Antwerp following Jan's death in 1587. As a youth, Rubens was educated in the classics, and demonstrated a particular talent for languages. He studied painting with the artists Tobias Verhaecht (1561-1631), Adam van Noort (1562-1641), and Otto van Veen (1556-1629), and became a master in the Antwerp guild of St. Luke in 1598. In 1600 Rubens embarked on an extended Italian sojourn to further his artistic education. He was engaged as court painter to Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, from 1601 until 1608, although he spent most of that time in other cities (Rome, Genoa, Madrid) working for other patrons.
Rubens returned to Antwerp late in 1608, and less than a year later was named court painter to the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, governors of the Spanish Netherlands. He received prestigious commissions from church, state, and private patrons, and almost single-handedly revitalized the city of Antwerp as a cultural center. To fill the demand for his work, Rubens worked in collaboration with other artists and oversaw an atelier of assistants, the most able of whom was Anthony van Dyck. In addition to his artistic enterprises, Rubens was also active as a diplomat and political agent during the 1620s and early '30s. Rubens was married twice: to Isabella Brant (1591-1626) in 1609, and to Hélène Fourment (1614-1673) in 1630. The artist died in Antwerp on 30 May 1640, and was buried in the St. Jacobskerk.
The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens. Translated and edited by Ruth Saunders Magurn. Cambridge, Mass., 1955; reprint Evanston, Ill., 1991.Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard. Parts 1-26. London, 1968ff.
Held, Julius S. The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens. 2 vols. Princeton, 1981.
Held, Julius S. Rubens: Selected Drawings. 2 vols. New York, 1959; 2d rev. ed., Mt. Kisco, N.Y., 1986.
White, Christopher. Peter Paul Rubens, Man and Artist. New Haven and London, 1987.
Collection Duc de Richelieu, 1671
Sale Morel, Paris, 19 April 1786 (held 3 May 1786), lot 34 ("Une Jardinière accroupie et appuyée sur le couvercle d'un panier rempli de fleurs. Elle est vêtue d'un corsage et d'une jupe de satin jaune.... 42 x 38 pouces"; 301 livres, to Vicomte de Chamgrand)
Sale de Proly, Chamgrand et al., Paris (Paillet), 20 March 1787, lot 30 (723 livres, to Marichale le Bois)
Collection R. A. C. Goodwin-Austen
Sale George Smith, John Tobin et al., London (Christie's), 27 May 1882, lot 98 (erroneously as from the Orléans Gallery; £157.10, to Lesser)
Collection Archibald Coats, Woodside, Paisley
His sale, London (Christie's), 3 July 1914, lot 126 (as "Flora," and formerly in the Orleans collection; £75.2, to Collings)
Unidentified sale, London, 1939
With A. F. Mondschein, New York, from whom purchased in 1944
Edinburgh, Scottish Royal Academy, 1883. Loan Exhibition of Works by Old Masters and Scottish National Portraits.
Cincinnati Art Museum, 1948. Nicolas Poussin, Peter Paul Rubens. 5 February - 8 March. Cat. no. 12.New York, Wildenstein & Co., 1951. A Loan Exhibition of Rubens. 20 February - 31 March. Cat. no. 32.
New York, M. Knoedler & Company, Inc., 1954. Paintings and Drawings from Five Centuries: Collection Allen Memorial Art Museum. 3 - 21 February. Cat. no. 40.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1956-57. The Venetian Tradition. 9 November - 1 January. Cat. no. 40.
Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1958. The Human Image. 10 October - 23 November. Cat. no. 39.Kenwood, London County Council, 1962.
An American University Collection: Works of Art from the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio. 3 May - 30 October. Cat. no. 29.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1966. Treasures from the Allen Memorial Art Museum. 21 July - 11 September. No cat.
De Piles, Roger. Le Cabinet de Monsiegnieur le Duc de Richelieu. Paris, 1677; reprinted in Recueil de divers ouvrages sur la peinture et le coloris [Paris, 1775], pp. 348ff. (as "Ericton ou la Curiosité des filles de Cécrops").
Rooses, Max. "Les Rubens de la Galérie du duc de Richelieu." Rubens-Bulletin 5 (1897), p. 139 (Richelieu collection).
Burchard, Ludwig. In Jahrbuch der preussischen Kunstsammlungen > 49 (1928), p. 63 (identifies Belvoir Castle "modello" with Richelieu description).
Stechow, Wolfgang. "Two Seventeenth Century Flemish Masterpieces." Art Quarterly 7 (1944), p. 296.Valentiner, W. R. "Rubens' Paintings in America." Art Quarterly 9 (1946), p. 167, no. 132.
Goris, Jan, and Julius S. Held. Rubens in America. New York, 1947, p. 37, no. 71.
Larsen, Erik. P. P. Rubens. Antwerp, 1952, p. 219, no. 102.
Burchard, Ludwig. "Rubens' 'Daughters of Cecrops.'" Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 11, no. 1 (Fall 1953), pp. 4-27.
Panofsky, Dora, and Erwin Panofsky. Pandora's Box. New York, 1956, p. 20 n. 16.
Hamilton, Chloe. "Catalogue of R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund Acquisitions." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 16, no. 2 (Winter 1959), cat. no. 38; no. 3 (Spring 1959), ill. p. 229.
Stechow, Wolfgang. "The Finding of Erichthonius: An Ancient Theme in Baroque Art." Studies in Western Art (Acts of the XX International Congress of the History of Art), vol. 3 (Princeton, 1962), pp. 33-34.
Teyssèdre, Bernard. "Une Collection française de Rubens au XVIIe siècle: le cabinet du duc de Richelieu décrit par Roger de Piles (1676-1681)." Gazette des Beaux Arts ser. 6, vol. 62 (1963), pp. 269, 293 (without knowledge of the Oberlin fragment); idem, "Supplément a l'article 'Le cabinet du duc de Richelieu décrit par Roger de Piles," Gazette des Beaux Arts ser. 6, vol. 64 (1964), p. 198 (addendum to previous article).
Stechow, Wolfgang. "Erichthonius." In Reallexikon zur deutschen Kunstgeschichte. Vol. 5. Stuttgart, 1965, col. 1243.
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, pp. 131-33, fig. 52.
Hofstede, Justus Müller. "Aspekten der Entwurfszeichnung bei Rubens." In Stil und Überlieferung in der Kunst des Abendlandes, III:Theorien und Problemen (Berlin, 1967), p. 118, n. 16.
Alpers, Svetlana. "Manner and Meaning in Some Rubens Mythologies." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 30 (1967), pp. 284-85.
Stechow, Wolfgang. Rubens and the Classical Tradition. Cambridge, Mass., 1968, pp. 67ff.
Held, Julius S. "Zwei Rubensprobleme." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 39, no. 1 (1976), pp. 34-35.
Farmer, John David. In Rubens and Humanism. Exh. cat., Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Ala., pp. 60-61, fig. 13.
Fischer, Sarah. "Rubens' 'The Finding of Erichthonius': Examination and Treatment." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 38, no. 1 (1980-81), pp. 21-37.
Held, Julius S. The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens. Vol. 1, Princeton, 1981, p. 319.
Held, Julius S. "The Daughters of Cecrops." In Anne H. Lowenthal, David Rosand, and John Walsh, Jr., eds., Rubens and his Circle: Studies by Julius S. Held. Princeton, 1982, pp. 156-65 (rev. reprint of Held 1976), esp. p. 163.
Liedtke, Walter, et al. Flemish Paintings in America: A Survey of Early Netherlandish and Flemish Paintings in the Public Collections of North America. Antwerp, 1992, p. 363.
The appearance of The Finding of Erichthonius has been radically altered since it left Rubens's studio in the 1630s.13 At some time after 1677, when the painting was described by De Piles, and before 1786, when it was sold at auction (see Literature, Provenance), the original painting was cut down to its present dimensions and many elements of the composition were lost. The composition now centers on the kneeling figure of Aglauros, the old nurse crouched in the background, and the basket containing the infant Erichthonius. Vestiges of Herse's proper left hip and arm are seen along the left edge of the canvas; all that remains of Pandrosos is her proper right hand, resting on the edge of the basket, and her right leg, extending across the lower edge of the composition. Probably also at this time, the excised fragment was made more attractive and the abbreviated composition more logical by painting over the infant with a bouquet of flowers, and masking the remnants of the two figures at left and the fountain at right with overpaint. From 1786 until 1939 the painting was considered to be a representation of a female gardener, leaning over a basket of flowers. In 1939, the painting was cleaned and most of the disfiguring eighteenth-century overpaint removed. The painting was most recently examined and treated at the Intermuseum Laboratory (ICA) by Sarah Fischer in 1976-77, at which time the rest of the overpaint was removed and the painting returned as closely as possible to its original appearance.Although the exact dimensions of the original work are not known, slight cusping of the canvas weave along the bottom edge indicates that it is close to the original bottom of the canvas. Two layers of lining canvas (applied at separate times) were removed in 1976-77, and the painting was relined to linen with a fiberglass interleaf, using a wax-resin adhesive. Also in 1976-77, the painting's seven-member wooden stretcher was replaced with an ICA-type spring stretcher. The wooden stretcher and both prior relinings can be dated to before 1882.14 Protective aluminum stripping was attached to the edges of the painting in 1976-77.The canvas is prepared with a white ground, which is covered with a varying layer of grey imprimatura; some forms (e.g., in the drapery folds in the kneeling figure of Aglauros) appear to be outlined by thin strokes of wash applied over this layer. The paint is applied wet-in-wet, with rich impasto (now somewhat flattened) and thin, transparent glazes. The sky, landscape, and other background forms were painted after the main elements of the composition; in several places the greyish imprimatura layer is exposed at the edges of these forms. Pentimenti (visible in x-radiographs) reveal changes in the nurse's position, as well as the artist's decision to tone down the forms of a cornice fragment supporting the infant's basket through the application of a brown glaze.15 The figures of Aglauros, the infant Erichthonius, and the nurse are in relatively good condition; however, as Fischer noted, "most of the peripheral forms...appeared to have been systematically abraded, probably to facilitate overpainting them."16 There is extensive inpainting at the upper right and lower left, and scattered throughout the painting. The fountain and the hand of the nurse have been heavily restored.
1. Discussed by Ludwig Burchard, "Rubens' 'Daughters of Cecrops,'" Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 11, no. 1 (Fall 1953), pp. 4-27; and Julius S. Held, The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens, vol. 1 (Princeton, 1981), pp. 317-20, among others.
2. Oil on canvas, 217.8 x 317.3 cm, Vaduz, collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein, inv. 111.
3. Another, smaller remnant of the original canvas, the isolated head of the standing figure of Herse, was in the collection of Harold Petri, Swedish Consul General in Antwerp in 1924; see Ludwig Burchard, "Rubens' 'Daughters of Cecrops,'" Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 11, no. 1 (Fall 1953), p. 22. It has not been traced since that collection was sold in 1926.
4. The complex physical history of this painting is traced in detail by Ludwig Burchard, "Rubens' 'Daughters of Cecrops,'" Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 11, no. 1 (Fall 1953), pp. 4-27; and Sarah Fischer, "Rubens' 'The Finding of Erichthonius': Examination and Treatment," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 38, no. 1 (1980-81), pp. 21-37.
5. Ludwig Burchard, "Rubens' 'Daughters of Cecrops,'" Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 11, no. 1 (Fall 1953), p. 8; Wolfgang Stechow, "The Finding of Erichthonius: An Ancient Theme in Baroque Art," Studies in Western Art (Acts of the XX International Congress of the History of Art), vol. 3 (Princeton, 1962), esp. p. 34; and Svetlana Alpers, "Manner and Meaning in Some Rubens Mythologies," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 30 (1967), pp. 284-85.
6. Julius S. Held, "Zwei Rubensprobleme," Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 39, no. 1 (1976), pp. 34-35; revised and translated into English in idem, "The Daughters of Cecrops," in Anne H. Lowenthal, David Rosand, and John Walsh, Jr., eds., Rubens and his Circle: Studies by Julius S. Held (Princeton, 1982), pp. 156-65, esp. p. 163.
7. Julius S. Held, "The Daughters of Cecrops," in Anne H. Lowenthal, David Rosand, and John Walsh, Jr., eds., Rubens and his Circle: Studies by Julius S. Held (Princeton, 1982), p. 163. Roger de Piles (Le Cabinet de Monsiegnieur le Duc de Richelieu [Paris, 1677]; reprinted in Recueil de divers ouvrages sur la peinture et le coloris [Paris, 1775], pp. 348ff) identified Aglauros as the figure in the left foreground: "she is on one side of the picture, seen from behind, her legs arranged under her body in a bizarre fashion, heavily leaning on her left arm, with her hand spread out on the ground." Based on this description, Ludwig Burchard ("Rubens' 'Daughters of Cecrops,'" Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 11, no. 1 [Fall 1953], pp. 13-15, 23) assumed that the dark overpaint which then obscured this figure's extended leg and foot in the Oberlin fragment reflected a change made by Rubens himself in the positioning of Aglauros's leg. This conclusion was proven false when the overpaint was subsequently shown to be of a much later date (see Technical Data).
8. Ludwig Burchard, "Rubens' 'Daughters of Cecrops,'" Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 11, no. 1 (Fall 1953), pp. 11-18.
9. Oil on panel, 31 x 33 cm, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, inv. 607; see Julius S. Held, The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens, vol. 1 (Princeton, 1981), pp. 319-20.
10. Oil on panel, 42 x 51 cm; see Julius S. Held, The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens, vol. 1 (Princeton, 1981), p. 319; also note in the museum files from Richard Spear, dated 9 June 1992.
11. Known copies after Rubens's original include: oil on canvas, 90.2 x 118.1 cm, Columbus Ga., collection Mrs. W. P. O'Kelly (1978); oil on canvas, 96.5 x 119.5 cm, Nantes, Musées Départmentaux de Loire-Atlantique; oil on copper, 29 x 41.5 cm, Dresden, Institut für Kunstgeschichte und Sammlung für Baukunst, Technische Universität; oil on canvas, 67.9 cm x 85.1 cm, New York, collection Samuel Friedenberg (1954). There is also a copy at the Museé des Beaux Arts, Angers; another copy, formerly at Dresden (inv. 993), was destroyed during World War II.
12. See most recently, Lawrence W. Nichols, in The Age of Rubens (exh. cat., Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1993-94), pp. 307-11.
13. The present discussion is indebted to Sarah Fischer's account of the painting's condition and treatment in her "Rubens' 'The Finding of Erichthonius': Examination and Treatment," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 38, no. 1 (1980-81), pp. 21-37.
14. Sarah Fischer, "Rubens' 'The Finding of Erichthonius': Examination and Treatment," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 38, no. 1 (1980-81), p. 27; and Ludwig Burchard, "Rubens' 'Daughters of Cecrops,'" Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 11, no. 1 (Fall 1953), pp. 18-20, relating numbers on the back of the relining canvas to the sales of 1882 and 1914 (see Provenance).
15. Sarah Fischer, "Rubens' 'The Finding of Erichthonius': Examination and Treatment," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 38, no. 1 (1980-81), pp. 31, 35.
16. Sarah Fischer, "Rubens' 'The Finding of Erichthonius': Examination and Treatment," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 38, no. 1 (1980-81), p. 32.