Drawing a line

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PETER PAUL RUBENS: Study of a young man with Raised Arms Source: Courtesy Sotheby


Late 2018 and news filters out that an extraordinary event is to take place early in the New Year.

An exceptionally rare figure study by Sir Peter Paul Rubens is to lead the Sotheby’s auction of Old Master Drawings on the 30th January in New York. Gregory Rubinstein Head of the Old Master Drawings department enthused, “This immensely powerful study shows Rubens’ actually working out the pose of his figure as he goes along. The sense of looking over the artist’s shoulder as he develops one of the most important paintings of his career is incredibly moving.” Peter Paul Ruben’s study of a ‘Young Man with Raised Arms’ offers a fascinating insight into the process by which the artist arrived at the final composition of key figures in the great altarpiece representing ‘The Raising of the Cross’ which Rubens painted for the Antwerp Church of Saint Walburga in 1608.

The drawing is one of a collection assembled by King William of the Netherlands [1792-1849] and his Russian wife Anna Pavlovna [1795-1865] who together assembled one of the greatest collections of paintings and drawings in Europe. Among the works were masterpieces by Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens and Rembrandt. The drawing ‘Nude Study of Young Man with Raised Arms’ by Rubens passed down through the generations privately through the family is the first drawing of this scale and significance to appear on the market for 50 years. Sotheby’s estimate for the drawing at auction is in the range of US$2.5 million to US$3.5 million.

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With a distinguished provenance which may be translated to mean – we have a high confidence that the drawing is genuine and we know not only who created it but also who owned it from its creation to the present day – the large (491 mm x 315 mm) and powerful drawing of a nearly nude figure of a young man straining every muscle to push a heavy weight above his head is one of a small handful of similarly monumental figure studies that survive for the key figures in the great altarpiece representing ‘The Raising of the Cross’, which Rubens painted for the Antwerp church of Saint Walburga shortly after his return from Italy at the end of 1608. While Rubens created chalk figure studies throughout his career, his drawings of this type are at their most imposing and sculptural in these first years after his return to Antwerp. At this key moment in his artistic career Rubens made figure studies that are judged to be truly Michelangelesque in their grandeur suggesting the visual visceral impact of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Rome and Ruben’s own magnificent Baroque ceiling at the Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace, London with its three principal paintings ‘The Apotheosis of James I’, ‘The Union of the Crowns’ and ‘The Peaceful Reign of James I’ completed and installed in 1636.

With a life story and a historical context that is endlessly fascinating the draw to Sotheby’s auction in New York City on the 30 January 2019 is to prove irresistible. One of the most significant drawings by the iconic artist to appear on the market for 50 years was sold after intense rivalry between two bidders for more than double Sotheby’s highest estimate for US$8.2 million. Establishing a new world auction record for a drawing by Sir Peter Paul Rubens.

Nick Horne, London, England

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