Ars Longa: Photoarchive Retraces History of Separated Rubens Paintings

The Photoarchive is the founding collection of the Frick Art Reference Library, comprising reproductions of more than one million works of art. Ars Longa is a blog series exploring the documentation of lost, altered, and destroyed works—as well as those in private collections or otherwise not easily accessible—highlighting the Photoarchive as an invaluable resource for the public.

Left: Circle of Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), An Old Woman with a Brazier, ca. 1618–20. Oil on oak panel, 92 x 116 cm. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden
Right: Circle of Rubens, Venus at the Forge of Vulcan, ca. 1618–20. Oil on panel, 179.5 x 199.5 cm. Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

What do the paintings above, one of Venus and Vulcan and the other of an old woman and two boys, have in common? On the surface, seemingly not much. However, at one point in their complex history, these two panels—Venus at the Forge of Vulcan, now in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, and An Old Woman with a Brazier, now in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden—were once a single painting, executed by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and his circle.

Among the more than 1.2 million works of art documented in the Frick Art Reference Library’s Photoarchive are many objects such as these two, which have been altered over the course of their histories. In conjunction with auction catalogs from the library’s collection, the rich visual resources and extensive documentation held in the Photoarchive help to reconstruct the lives of works of art, tracing their physical and material history over time. This information allows researchers to make amazing discoveries, which lead to exciting questions and open up new avenues of research.

The Photoarchive records indicate that in the seventeenth century these two panels were indeed one painting, produced by Rubens and his circle around 1618–20. The group on the right of the Brussels picture, including Venus, Cupid, Bacchus, Ceres, and Pomona, has been identified as originally painted by Rubens himself. However, some parts have since been overpainted; the record notes previous speculation that Frans Snyders (1579–1657) completed the still lifes held by Bacchus and Ceres. The scene at the left of the painting, showing Vulcan at his forge, was added later in the seventeenth century by a follower of Rubens, painted on an entirely separate panel and combined with the Venus group. In doing so, Vulcan took the place of the original left section of the composition, which depicted an old woman and two children warming themselves around a brazier (below).

Photoarchive mount of An Old Woman with a Brazier. Photograph purchased from the Dresden fine art photographer Hanfstaengl

This detached panel with the old woman and boys is the painting now held in Dresden. To help us visualize the original composition as it would have appeared in the middle of the seventeenth century, the Photoarchive points us to a copy after Rubens’s original painting titled Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus (Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze). Pictured below, it is now in the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague; another version was sold at Christie’s in 2018. In these copies, the classical figures of Venus, Cupid, Ceres, Pomona, and Bacchus are shown on the right, with the scene of the old woman and children warming themselves on the left. The subject was popular in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century: Originally a quotation from the Roman playwright Terence, it became a well-known proverb of the period depicted by Rubens and many of his contemporaries.

Circle of Rubens, Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus (Without Ceres and Bacchus Venus Would Freeze), ca. 1620. Oil on canvas, 138 x 205 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague

Ultimately, the ensemble featuring Venus and the old woman was separated into two in the eighteenth century by an Antwerp dealer (not, as is suggested on the Photoarchive mount, by a seventeenth-century collector who “disliked seeing nude figures on his walls”). Alterations were made to both in order to produce stand-alone paintings. Radiographic evidence suggests that the panels were separated because they were badly joined in the first place. This hypothesis implies that the two original halves of this painting were, in fact, created as individual works and later joined together. Contemporary copies from the workshop, however, depict the “original” composition as one ensemble, which casts doubt on this theory. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the joining of the panels, it seems that they were ultimately separated because of obvious cracks or joints settling on their surface where the two sections had been connected, imperfections which would have made the painting less desirable to potential collectors.

It was once the two halves were separated, at some point in the eighteenth century, that the figure of Vulcan was added, again on a separate panel. Replacing the old woman and children around the brazier, Vulcan joined the surviving group of Venus, Cupid, and the figures that make up the composition we know today. The resulting scene became purely mythological, as opposed to the proverbial interpretation suggested by the genre figures gathered around the burning coals.

Both sides of the Photoarchive mount for Venus at the Forge of Vulcan

The provenance for these panels is fully documented in the Photoarchive records. From this information, we know that the paintings were already separated by 1747–50, when An Old Woman with a Brazier appears in the inventory of what is now the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden (inv. inv./ 958, also inv. no. 1560). After passing through a series of private collections (through sales in 1804 and 1857, whose auction catalogs are held by the Frick Art Reference Library), Venus at the Forge of Vulcan was purchased in 1857 by the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, where it remains today.

As seen, Photoarchive materials provide rich documentation that offers glimpses into the past lives of works of art, from uncovering provenance to surviving as the witness to a lost masterpiece. In the case of the paintings by Rubens and his circle, the unique holdings of the Frick Art Reference Library allow us to retrace their joint histories of union, alteration, and eventual separation—a wonderful example of this endless possibility for discovery.

For more information on the documentation of alteration, restoration, and destruction within the Photoarchive, check out a webinar conducted by Photoarchive staff in October 2020 on this topic: Highlights of the Photoarchive, Part Two: Restoration, Alteration, and Destruction. To make similar discoveries of your own, explore digitized Photoarchive images and documentation for more than 300,000 works of art in the Frick Digital Collections.

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