RUBENS, Peter Paul
(b. 1577, Siegen, d. 1640, Antwerpen)

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Oil on panel, 41 x 46 cm
Courtauld Gallery, London

By the early 1620s Rubens had perfected the art of giving an evocative depiction of the most static as well as the most complicated and dramatically charged subjects from religious and secular literature. It is therefore no coincidence that around this time and in the years following he designed the cycles, that form perhaps the creative culmination of his whole career. In these new tasks - and partly because of their unprecedented scale - his style showed innovations first evident in the great series he was commissioned to product in 1620 for the ceiling of the Jesuit church in Antwerp. This building was decorated from Rubens's designs with some forty large ceiling paintings with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as well as some representing scenes from the lives of saints. The paintings, largely executed by Van Dyck after Rubens's design, were in 1718 destroyed in a fire. The quality of the painting can be judged from several drawn and engraved copies, and especially from the survival of numerous oil sketches, such as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

This typical sketch shows that in every respect his style is dependent on that of the famous Venetian 'soffitti', the painted ceilings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, which express the same liveliness and sense of illusion.

Rubens's modelli for the lost ceiling paintings show clearly how much the dazzling, nervous style of his work varies from the more controlled classicism of his earlier years.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 3 minutes):
George Frideric Handel: Solomon - The arrival of the Queen of Sheba