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

Portrait of a Man, Possibly an Architect or Geographer

Oil on copper, 22 x 15 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This is Rubens's earliest known painting. In its somewhat formal pose and pale flesh-tints of the face this painting is entirely in keeping with the earlier Netherlandish style of portraiture, recalling portraits by Anthonis Mor and his followers, and early Netherlandish portraits in the spatial device of a parapet or ledge.

In his hands the well-dressed and well-groomed gentleman holds a watch, an architect's or draftsman's square (defining a right angle), and a pair of dividers. In the past the watch has been taken as a possible reference to the man's profession, but there can be little doubt that the timepiece (in a closed gold case) is a conventional vanitas motif. This reading is actually reinforced by the other instruments, whether or not they refer to a profession such as architecture or geography. In combination a square and dividers are attributes of Temperance, since they suggest proportion or moderation in worldly affairs (quite as that virtue's dominant attribute of a bridle indicates restraint). Here the watch is held foremost, signifying that an awareness of one's mortality leads to a proper mode of life.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.