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

Cupid Riding a Dolphin

Oil on wood, 14,5 x 13,5 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Rubens was very keen on classical antiquity and this sketch in the Brussels museum evokes this facet of his genius. In it Cupid is guiding by the bridle a dolphin that is slicing through the sea. In his right hand he carries a bow, on his back a quiver of arrows, illustrating a passage from the Latin poet Ovid's Metamorphoses where the little god of love is preparing to unleash arrows in order to conquer hearts for Venus, and symbolising the impatience of love.

Rubens was fond of Ovid's narratives, which he illustrated several times. Cupid Riding a Dolphin is part of a series of sketches that Rubens made for the decoration of the Torre de la Parada, the Spanish kings' hunting lodge close to Madrid. In 1636, Philip IV commissioned for this residence a series of paintings to be completed in just under a year. Almost half of these works were paintings of animals, along with hunting scenes and pictures of the king. The monarch turned to Rubens for the paintings of subjects taken from the verses of the Latin poet. The animals and the hunting scenes are a direct reference to the destination of the building, whilst Ovid's mythological poems create the atmosphere of bucolic entertainment which is appropriate for such a country dwelling. This is the last, and largest, commission that Rubens received, consisting of around a hundred works. The artist did the sketches himself but painted only a few pictures, entrusting the execution of most of the canvases to his close collaborators Cornelis de Vos, Theodoor van Thulden, Erasmus Quellinus the Younger, Jan Eyck and Jacob Jordaens. Some forty of the paintings are conserved at the Prado in Madrid. The Brussels museum owns twelve of the fifty or so sketches that are still extant.

Cupid Riding a Dolphin is exemplary of the spontaneity and energy which show through in all of the master's sketches. Thicker touches on top of the fine ground layer highlight the dolphin's impetuous movement, whilst isolated touches of colour indicate the colour scheme of the composition. The final painting was produced by Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (Madrid, Prado).

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 4 minutes):
Francesco Gasparini: The Meddlesome Cupid, aria