Revealed: Rubens used stock portraits to populate his paintings

Revealed: Rubens used stock portraits to populate his paintings
Flemish Kermis, the type of painting for which Rubens would call on his collection of stock faces.

The Antwerp-based painter Peter Paul Rubens used a collection of stock faces to portray the anonymous characters in his large, dramatic paintings, new research has revealed.

The faces are known as tronies, usually used to refer to faces with exaggerated expressions. Rubens’ collection of 136 tronies, however, were more studies than macabres, and came in very useful when he was painting a scene involving many different persons.

A tronie was not a work of art in itself, but an instrument,” explained Nico Van Hout to Gazet van Antwerpen. As head of collection research at the Royal Museum for Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) he has now catalogued the full ‘database’ of Rubens’ 136 known stock faces.

It is a study of a head that could be fitted into scenes. For an Adoration, for example, Rubens needed different types to represent the shepherds. They couldn’t all be the same. There were faces looking up, down, left or right. In the well-known Study of the Head of an African Man from the Brussels [Beaux-Arts] museum, the same figure is depicted four times differently.”

In practice, the faces would be kept handy – and even fellow artists were allowed to inspect and copy them – whenever a character was needed. The face would then be copied and pasted into the larger work.

Now always entirely successfully. Sometimes the dimensions or proportions were not quite exact.

That was solved by making the hair a little longer,” Van Hout said. “Rubens was a specialist in this. He was the king of imperfection and got away with everything.”

Van Hout’s job was twofold: track down all known tronies attributed to Rubens, anywhere in the world. And then work out in which works they appear. The final tally came to 136.

Undoubtedly there were more, because some types appear several times in paintings, but we did not find an original study head. The quality of the tronies is surprisingly high. I estimate that 60% were painted by Rubens himself, the rest by skilled employees.”

Among those employees are Anthony Van Dyck, who made several before going off to Italy and an eventual career as a painter and diplomat at the court of Charles I of England. Another contributor to the collection was Jacob Jordaens

The museum is closed for renovations, but an exhibition based on the new findings is promised when it re-opens.

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