Few Old Master artists admired antiquity as much as did Peter Paul Rubens. Its stories and figures, philosophy and literature, arts and culture, which espoused strength, heroism and constancy, captivated Rubens and had a profound impact on both his personal and professional life. He became a passionate collector of all things antique, amassing an impressive collection of books, coins, medals, gems, cameos, architectural artifacts, portrait busts and sculptures.1 Rubens’s admiration for and study of the ancient world were, indeed, so extensive that, after meeting him in 1622, the antiquarian Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637), a man who would develop a deep and lasting friendship with the painter, commented that “in matters of antiquity [Rubens] possesses the most universal and remarkable knowledge I have ever seen.” 2 Rubens’s great love for antiquity emerges throughout his artistic career in the quotations of ancient sculpture that routinely appear in his compositions, as well as in the themes he chose to depict. Both in subject matter and execution, this passion is fully manifest in the Leiden Collection’s bust-length portrait of Julius Caesar.
Seen in three-quarter profile, the Roman general and statesman gazes to the right. His laureate head is fixed and proud, befitting his status as one of the most famous men of all antiquity. His bright red cloak swags across his chest, revealing only a glimpse of his silver cuirass, a symbol of his illustrious military career. Rubens modeled Caesar’s face with a smooth, flowing brush, but executed his cloak and laurel crown with a swifter, sketchier stroke which, through the contrast, helped to capture the qualities of Caesar’s living flesh.
The face’s crisp modeling and the deep folds in the cloak, paired with the bust-length cropping and oval format, suggest that Rubens based this portrait on a classical bust of Caesar, perhaps the marble Rubens acquired in 1618 from the English diplomat Sir Dudley Carleton (1573–1632). Rubens purchased the entirety of Carleton’s sculpture collection that year, and listed among the contents of the shipment to the painter were 18 marble portraits of emperors, including “[una] testa di Giulio Cesare.” 3 Rubens displayed this collection in a special gallery he constructed at his home in Antwerp. A fictive display of the busts is found in his Sense of Sight, a painting on which he collaborated with Jan Brueghel the Elder (fig 1).4 Prior to selling the sculpture collection in 1626 to the Duke of Buckingham, Rubens made a drawing of a bust of Caesar presumably based on the one in his collection (fig 2). This drawn portrayal of the sculpture later served as the model for an engraving by Boetius Adams Bolswert (1580–1633) (fig 3), to which the Leiden Collection painting bears a striking resemblance; it, too, was probably based on the same drawing.
Despite its reliance on antique sculpture, Rubens’s image of Julius Caesar is lively—a characteristic on which the master prided himself for works he had adapted from stone. As Rubens wrote in his now-lost treatise, “I am convinced that in order to achieve the highest perfection one needs a full understanding of the statues, nay a complete absorption in them; but one must make judicious use of them and before all avoid the effect of stone.”5 Indeed, Julius Caesar feels nothing like its cool marble prototype. Through a combination of highly finished passages and unblended strokes, Rubens enlivened Caesar’s visage. Around the right eye, for example, he loaded the brush with paint and applied it thickly down the side of the nose, both to suggest the presence of light hitting the skin’s surface and to model the face’s contours. The carefully choreographed rhythm of Rubens’s brush, for example in the abbreviated strokes of Caesar’s wispy hair, further animates the emperor by conveying spontaneity and immediacy.
Julius Caesar likely belonged to a series of Roman emperors painted around 1625/26. Six emperor paintings by Rubens were sold together in the sale of Thomas Jodocus Loridon de Ghellinck’s collection in 1821, including an image of Julius Caesar (probably the present work).6 Records also exist for three other paintings of emperors.7 Given the number of known portraits of emperors, Rubens’s series originally must have included 12 paintings, as was customary with the rise in popularity of De Vita Caesarum by the second-century author Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (70–130 A.D.). More commonly known as “The Twelve Caesars,” Suetonius Tranquillus’s biographies appeared in numerous editions over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and provided a font of evocative details and anecdotes regarding the lives of emperors. These texts proved particularly appealing to painters, printmakers, and sculptors interested in representing the classical past. They also had widespread appeal among their patrons, for whom owning a series of emperors was a demonstration of their sophistication and learning.
Princely courts, in particular, enthusiastically embraced the subject. Titian famously painted a Twelve Caesars series for Duke Federico II Gonzaga (1500–40) to decorate his Gabinetto dei Cesari in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, a series Rubens would have seen when he was in Mantua in the first decade of the seventeenth century.8 Philip II of Spain (1527–98) purchased a copy of Titian’s series to hang in his own imperial gallery in Madrid, which he augmented with a sculptural series. Either Maurits, Prince of Orange (1567–1625), or his stepbrother and successor, Frederik Hendrik, (1584–1647), also commissioned a caesars series to which a number of Dutch and Flemish artists, including Rubens, contributed between 1615 and 1625.9 Rubens’s Julius Caesar, painted in 1619 for that series (fig 4), presents a much sterner and more sober image than is found in the present picture.10
The patron of the Roman emperor series to which the Leiden Collection Julius Caesar belongs is not known. The small size of the paintings suggests that they could have been cabinet pieces for a patron with an interest in classical history. Jaffé has suggested that they may have been created for one of Rubens’s antiquarian friends, possibly one of the men who formed part of Cardinal Francesco Barberini’s retinue: Girolamo Aleandro (1574–1629), a noted Italian scholar, Giovanni Doni (ca. 1593–1647), a musicologist who specialized in ancient music, or Cardinal Barberini’s secretary, Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588–1657), all of whom Rubens had met in Paris in the mid-1620s and with whom he shared a love of classical art and culture.11
The subject of Roman emperors occupied Rubens throughout his life. Jaffé proposes that before Rubens left Antwerp in 1600 for his eight-year stay in Italy, he created a series of caesars, which are today known primarily through copies in the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, and a private collection in Brussels.12 Only one original survives, Emperor Commodus as Hercules and as a Gladiator of ca. 1599–1600 (PR-101). Much later, in 1630, Rubens returned to the subject of Roman emperors when he employed Bolswert to create engravings after a series of drawings he had made in the mid-1620s. Bolswert completed only five plates before his death in 1633. The project was revived in 1638 with Lucas Vorsterman (1595–1675) as the printmaker.13
Whether produced for a princely patron, an antiquarian associate, or an unknown private collector, the Leiden Collection’s Julius Caesar offers a special look into Rubens’s ongoing meditations on the theme of the Twelve Caesars. In subject and execution, it stands as one of the great examples of Rubens as artist and antiquarian, demonstrating his remarkable inventiveness and bearing witness to the profound impact that the classical past exerted on his artistic life.