First Steps To Greatness: An Early Rubens Masterpiece

June 14th, 2013 | posted by Bill Rau
This portrait of Emperor Marcus Aurelius by Peter Paul Rubens dates to his days as a student in Antwerp. It is a rare glimpse into the artist's early work, circa 1600.

This portrait of Emperor Marcus Aurelius by Peter Paul Rubens dates to his days as a student in Antwerp. It is a rare glimpse into the artist’s early work, circa 1600.

Emotional. Mesmerizing. Profound.

All of these words and more have been used over the centuries to describe the work of Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens. We’re all familiar with the spiritually charged, vibrant canvases that grace the collections of major museums throughout the world. Too seldom do art lovers get the chance to see a legendary artist’s early works–the true foundations of their genius. This painting, entitled The Emperor Marcus Aurelius provides this intriguing insight into the works of the Baroque master.

As was typical of the time, students in his extensive studio did the majority of Rubens’ paintings, with the finishing touches done by the artist himself. There are few paintings attributed 100% to Rubens, with only 10 known works done by Rubens’ own hand from his days as a student in Antwerp. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius is one of them.

This astonishing oil on panel was executed in the late 1590s during his studies with the distinguished Antwerp artist Otto van Veen, who had himself completed a series of the Roman Emperors. Rubens was intrigued by all things Roman, so it is not surprising then, that Rubens, in his attempts to learn his teacher’s techniques, would undertake the same series as his teacher. This particular portrait of the innovative emperor displays the precision and treatment of anatomy synonymous with Rubens’ entire oeuvre.

In 1600, Rubens’ pivotal trip to Italy would change the course of this painting. His exposure to artists including Titan and Tintoretto can be seen throughout his works from this point forward. His command of chiaroscuro, texture and expression evolve, forever establishing a uniquely “Rubens” feel to his paintings.

Adding to the importance of this fascinating portrait is a letter of authenticity by Professor Emeritus Julius Held of Columbia University, New York.

Rubens’ paintings are regarded amongst fine art scholars to be the greatest of the era. Works completed by his hand alone command the highest attention, not only because of their extreme rarity on the market, but because of the priceless historical understanding they offer into the mind of one of the greatest artists to have ever lived.

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