Peter Paul Rubens's The Abduction of Ganymede
In 1636 the great Flemish artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens was commissioned to provide about sixty mythological paintings for the Torre de la Parada, King Philip IV’s hunting lodge outside Madrid. Approximately fifty oil sketches for the project still survive. A number are housed in the Prado Museum, Madrid; the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam; and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. One—a recent acquisition—now resides in the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum. It had most recently been owned by the director of the English National Opera and the Bavarian State Opera, Sir Peter Jonas, who died in 2020.
Rubens—a humanist, diplomat, art collector, and the head of a thriving, productive workshop—was one of the most important and influential artists of the seventeenth century. He was patronized by several European monarchs, including Marie de Medici of France and Charles I of England, but none more so than Philip IV of Spain, whose dominions included the Southern Netherlands, of which Flanders was a province.
The Museum’s painting depicts the beautiful youth, Ganymede, who was abducted by Jupiter (or his eagle) and subsequently became cupbearer to the god. The story reaches back to Homer and Virgil, but the account most familiar during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “The king of the gods [Jupiter] once burned with love for the Phrygian Ganymede, and something was found which Jove would rather be than what he was. Still he did not deign to take the form of any bird save that which could bear his thunderbolts [the eagle]. Without delay he cleft the air on his lying wings and stole away the Trojan boy, who even now, though against the will of Juno, mingles the nectar and attends the cups of Jove.”
In the oil sketch, Rubens based the boy’s pose on that of the elder son of Laocoön1; the artist made drawings of the antique sculptural group in Rome in the early 1600s. The round shape of Ganymede’s buttocks is echoed in the swell of his stomach and thigh, and his arms are spread upward, as though reaching for the heavens.
As is typical of the sketches for the Torre de la Parada, the painting was prepared with a white ground, over which a streaky brown imprimatura was applied. Rubens firmly outlined the boy’s form and carefully built up the opaque flesh tones over the brushy preparation. By contrast, the form and feathers of Jupiter’s eagle, described by sure and sweeping dark brown brushstrokes, leave the priming visible. Rubens often used more than one piece of wood for his panel paintings. Ganymede is constituted of four planks, although we are not yet sure whether the lateral panels were part of Rubens’s original composition or added somewhat later. The number “3 1/2” is inscribed at the top of the central panel, above a horizontal line running its width, and accords roughly with the width of the final picture in Antwerp feet.2
The tall vertical format of the finished painting, now in the Prado, indicates that it was likely intended to be hung between windows in the hunting lodge. The composition differs in several respects from the sketch, most notably in the boy’s expression and physique; the inclusion of a quiver with arrows (in the account in the Aeneid, Ganymede was abducted while hunting); and the pose of the eagle, whose beak catches the strap of the quiver rather than the small piece of red cloth in the sketch. Ganymede’s left hand now rests on the eagle’s outstretched wing,3 and Jupiter’s thunderbolt appears in the stormy sky.
The Ganymede sketch provides a wonderful foil for the Museumʼs large painting by Rubens and his studio, Cupid Supplicating Jupiter (ca. 1611–15). Painted some twenty years earlier, Jupiter is represented with his eagle rather than by the eagle as in the sketch. In both works, the red drapery is the only real color note in a largely monochromatic palette. The figure of Cupid, whose face is seen in profile, could almost be the same model Rubens would later use for Ganymede. Of course, the execution of the two birds—indeed, of the two paintings—is quite distinct and can be explained not only by the difference in the size of the works but also by their purpose, the time elapsed between their production, and the evidence of studio collaboration.
The size of the Torre commission necessitated that Rubens delegate the execution of some of the paintings (based on his sketches) to his Antwerp colleagues. The master apparently saved for himself the subjects that attracted him most, among them Ganymede. The dramatic scene and Rubens’s love of the nude allowed the artist to demonstrate his virtuosity to great effect. The Princeton sketch highlights for us the role that Rubens’s intellectual acuity, direct and rapid working method, and compositional acumen played in contributing to his international success.
Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Distinguished Curator and Lecturer
1 As Alpers noted in her discussion of the Prado painting; see Svetlana Alpers, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, Part IX: The Decoration of the Torre de la Parada (London: Phaidon, 1971), 211.
2 Julius Held, “New Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens,” Burlington Magazine 129 (1987): 577.
3 Held, 577. Held suggests this change between the sketch and the painting may be due to Rubens’s reliance on Michelangelo’s drawing of the subject made for Cavalieri.