The Prado Museum takes on the challenge of painting like Rubens | Culture


At the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, economic progress was taking hold in Europe. Bankers, great merchants, kings and nobles expanded or multiplied their palaces and residences, which forced them to commission increasingly larger paintings to cover their large walls with notable pictorial works. In 1638, for example, Philip IV suddenly requested 120 works from the painter Pedro Pablo Rubens (1577-1640). But no matter how diligent the workshops that helped the German artist were – Rubens’ was enormous, which led him to confess that he could no longer hire more assistants, “even if they were the mayor’s children” – it was impossible to meet the growing demand. A large painting could require up to six years of work, although it is true that the artists did not only dedicate themselves to a single work, but rather worked on several at the same time. Even, like Velázquez, they could go years without picking up a brush, which further slowed down the promised finishes. For this reason, what is known as the “Venetian technique” was developed. This working method dramatically reduced the time it took to create a piece; a painting that would have taken five years with previous techniques could be completed in less than a year. No one knows who its creator was, although it is thought that the Venetian Titian (1490-1576) was its pioneer, or one of the first to use it. And he showed it to Rubens.

The Prado Museum plans to open the exhibition in October next year Rubens’ workshop, curated by Alejandro Vergara Sharp (Washington, 63 years old), head of conservation of Flemish painting at the national art gallery. It will recreate with great accuracy what the artistic laboratory of the genius from Siegen (Germany) was like, including the smells that he inhaled when he created. Of course, given that there are now other sanitary regulations – if there were any in the 17th century – the essence of the toxic turpentine that soaked the study will be replaced by another very similar, but completely harmless one. The exhibition will include fifteen pieces – the Prado is the museum with the most works by Rubens in the world, 92 of the 1,500 he painted – and a millimetric recreation, thanks to a professional painter, of how he captured his imagination on canvas.

The technique, broadly speaking, consists of giving preeminence to color and its light sensation ahead of the forms, in which artists recreated themselves before the development of this method. The flamingos, for example, painted millimeter by millimeter, but with the new system they began to do it in layers of color, starting with a dark background that highlighted the tones of the following superimposed strata. From the 17th century until almost Goya, all painters used this method. “It was what is known as the economy of art,” explains Vergara. “Many more paintings could be finished, which were a luxury good, and exported to other kingdoms that claimed them. The artists thus earned much more money because their works were larger and, logically, more expensive.”

'Mercury and Argos' (1636-1638), by Rubens.
‘Mercury and Argos’ (1636-1638), by Rubens.Prado Museum

Jacobo Alcalde (Madrid, 33 years old) has been the artist chosen by the museum to recreate how Rubens worked. At only nine years old he managed to receive a scholarship from a foundation and at 19 he saw one of his paintings hanging in the European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM) in Barcelona. He has spent years studying Venetian technique. “Most of the painters wrote down how they worked, so we have a lot of documentation. But the problem has been reading the texts in Spanish from the 16th or 17th centuries and, above all, discovering the measurements [mezclas y porcentajes], because they did not indicate them,” he points out. “I have also had to study textures, transparencies, saturations and color properties to try to recreate the work. The speed at which the brushstroke must be applied is different if paint from the 17th or 21st century is used.”

With the aforementioned technique, Alcalde is going to copy the work of Rubens Mercury and Argos, which is exhibited in the Prado. You will need at least five months to do it. The first thing you have done is glue the frame and the canvas, which have the same measurements as the original. Next, he ran a pumice stone to prevent any imperfections in the fabric. Then he covered it with a mixture of calcium carbonate with oil and earth. The mixture will take about two weeks to dry, at the beginning of December.

Then, he will draw the characters very lightly on the canvas and begin to make color primers, as well as a sketch of the volumes. Finally, she will give quite transparent layers of color and the last highlights in certain parts of the painting. The process ends with the varnishing of the work.

The brushes and paints that will be used are the same as in Rubens’ time to achieve the texture and extension speeds of the colors. The brushes contain mustelid hair (sables, badgers or squirrels), currently prohibited. The white lead used by painters – an essential color at this time – was made by introducing several rolls of lead into manure and wine vinegar. Everything was buried and, after a few weeks, a crust of scales was obtained that was mixed with water, linseed and walnut until the desired texture was obtained. This type of paint, given the toxicity of lead, is also currently prohibited.

The entire process will be recorded on video by the Prado and will be displayed at the exhibition on large screens. “It’s a real challenge,” says Vergara, while Alcalá admits: “I feel like an alchemist who doesn’t know what he’s going to get.”

Of the 120 paintings that Philip IV requested from Rubens, Rubens responded that he could only deliver 60 sketches on time, even though he had 20 assistants in his workshop, among them Anton van Dyck (1599-1641). In the end, the German only signed 14. Mayor only has to make one, but without his own workshop to help him and without a teacher to guide him. A real challenge to complete the Prado assignment on time. Like Rubens.

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