Peter Paul Rubens
Flemish, 1577–1640
The Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist
c. 1615

Oil on panel

45 1/8 x 36 in. (114.5 x 91.5 cm)
Major Acquisitions Fund, 1967.229

Like many young Flemish painters, Peter Paul Rubens went to Italy to complete part of his artistic education. When he returned to Antwerp after eight years in Rome and Mantua, the artist dominated Flemish painting and was sought after by patrons throughout Europe for his new, expressive style that combined the religious and mythological themes typical of Renaissance painting (see Correggio's Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist) with the dramatic light, color, and compositions of Baroque art. The Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist, one of numerous Holy Family paintings Rubens completed between 1610 and 1620, is an example of his distinctive approach.

Rubens's skill lay in his ability to turn traditional subjects into expressive and accessible images. He did so by various means. To help viewers of The Holy Family identify with its sacred characters, for example, he cast them as contemporary Flemish figures. Mary, for example, wears a brilliant red dress in a fashionable style of the early 17th century. The older figures of Saints Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) and Joseph (Mary's husband) bear the indiviualized faces of models from the artist's own time. Contrasts in color and paint handling enliven the subject and provide focus for the viewer. The skin of Mary and the blonde Christ child—the painting's central figures—is rendered in cool tones that give their fleshy bodies an intense glow. By contrast, the faces and hands of Joseph and Elizabeth are warmer in tone and rendered with looser brushwork.

Compositional devices in Rubens's painting produce further drama and focus. The entire grouping, forms a dynamic sweep, initiated by the bold movement of the two infants–Saint John rushing forward and Jesus twisting toward his mother. Within this upward action, Joseph twists his body back toward a lamb, whose presence is a symbol of Christ's future sacrifice. The unsettled sky in the upper left foreshadows the Christian savior's Crucifixion and enhances the restless motion of the composition.

Christoffel Jegher (Flemish, 1596–1652/53)
after Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640)
The Temptation of Christ by the Devil
c. 1633–35

Woodcut on cream laid paper

349 x 445 mm (primary support); 390 x 497 mm (secondary support)
Amanda S. Johnson and Marion J. Livingston Endowment, 1998.362

Rubens's fame is attributed partly to his collaboration with engravers, who copied his work. The artist often published reproductions of his paintings and distributed them internationally as a form of self-promotion. The Temptation of Christ, a depiction of Satan challenging Christ to break his fast by turning stones into bread, was created by Christoffel Jegher, a woodcutter, and based on Rubens's study for a ceiling painting that has since been destroyed.

Proofs for the woodcut reveal how the painter made "corrections" to Jegher's interpretation, but the final print displays Jegher's distinctive style and his preference for the chiaroscuro woodcut. In this process, effects of light and shade are produced by printing each tone from a different wood block. This method required great skill and permitted the printmaker to achieve rich, painterly effects, particularly in the folds of the figures' drapery.

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