In 1621 the Danish medical student Otto Sperling, on a tour through the Low Countries, visited Rubens’ studio, one of the sights of Antwerp:
… We also visited the widely famed artist Rubens, whom we found in the middle of his work, while listening to a reading of Tacitus and simultaneously dictating a letter. And because we remained silent, as we didn’t want to disturb him by speaking, he himself addressed us, while continuing to paint, listening to the reading and dictating his letter, as he answered our questions – by this he wanted to show us his great cleverness. After this, one of his servants showed us around the whole of his magnificent palace, showing us the antiquities and Greek and Roman sculptures, of which he had a great many. We also saw a large chamber without windows, but lit from a large hole in the ceiling that cast the light into the middle of the room. In this chamber sat many young painters, everyone working on different pieces that had been drawn with chalk for them in advance by Mr. Rubens, and different coloured patches of paint placed here and there on the surface. The young painters had to work up these paintings with colours, and finally Mr. Rubens would perfect and complete the paintings with his own brushstrokes and colours. I was told all these paintings would be considered Rubens’ work, and thus he has become exceedingly rich, and kings and princes have given him great gifts and jewels.1
Sperling’s account provides a great deal of information about Rubens’ self-presentation in the environment he had created. He is portrayed as a scholar, a man of affairs, and a gentleman. While he is indeed working with his hands, he is apart from the other painters, and his activity is separate from the grind of the workshop. His assistants are elsewhere, busy working from his designs and instructions. Sperling’s text is nevertheless frustrating: we can’t help but feel that if the visit were described by someone who better understood the business of painting, we would have been given a much clearer picture of how the studio functioned. He was fascinated both by what he saw and what he was told during his visit; an obviously conscious effort was made on the part of by Rubens and his household to represent the painter as he wished to be seen. The studio guide gave Sperling a simplified and idealized version of how Rubens structured the workshop: the master as the creative force, the assistants the means by which his designs are realized, the paintings determined complete only after the artist cast his eye and brush over them. Sperling’s guide explains that these collaborative works are considered to be Rubens’ own. Yet, what of the works Rubens painted solely by himself – such as, we could imagine, the one Sperling saw him painting – in an atmosphere quite different from that of the workshop?
The nature of the interactions and the way the works were made in Rubens’ – and others’ workshops – could be as clear-cut as Sperling described. This is the most common conception – then and now – of the roles of master and his assistants. Yet, in reality, even when the division of labour is that straightforward, the means of production involved make the situation far more complex. The use of different types of drawings, painted sketches and study heads, and the varying capacities of the different members of the workshop are all factors that contribute to this. This is to say nothing of considerations such as a work’s cost, its market and function, always foremost in the minds of practical painters.
If Sperling had visited the studio only one or two years earlier, he might have seen Van Dyck in the workshop, not simply executing Rubens’ designs, but assuming a more dynamic role having been given a great deal of responsibility and licence, and taking on duties that would normally have been carried out by Rubens himself. Van Dyck appears, for instance, to have been tasked with making study heads, a vital component in the economy of the workshop, as we shall explain. Other painters – specialists in the genres of animal painting or still life – also enjoyed a status more like that of a direct collaborator than an anonymous assistant. At times, Rubens subcontracted to painters or other artists outside of the workshop who, even if masters themselves, were required to emulate his style.
Rubens may have employed Jordaens in this capacity – made easier because of the links between the two painters’ styles. While he never worked in Rubens’ workshop, Jordaens fully understood its organization and aspired to match its success. Like Van Dyck, he set up a workshop that drew upon Flemish tradition and Rubens’ innovations, and created an equally diverse product, including tapestry and printmaking.
The primary source material that enables us to reconstruct something of these artists’ activities is diverse – from Sperling’s tantalizing journal entry through to tax records. But the best sources are the works themselves. This project focuses on a small group of works in the national collection, and offers an unprecedented and in-depth exploration of what they are and how they came to be. We do not dwell on many of the traditional interests of art history – nor is this technical art history, a more specialized field of study that focuses on the materials of art. Rather, through object-based art history, our aim is to flesh out Sperling’s account of a visit to the painter’s studio – allowing us to see the artists at work and gain a window into their creative minds.
1 Sperling 1885, pp. 2–3. Our thanks to Thomas Ragazzon Smestad for his help with the translation.