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Bruegel to Rubens: Exceptional exhibition of Flemish Masters at the Ashmolean Museum

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels' Art Correspondent

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Study of a Man with his Hands Crossed, c. 1618–20. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Anarchic, artful, intimate, intricate, spontaneous, scribbled, studied, and sometimes weird and wonderful – phantasmagoric even in the wild concoction that is Bruegel’s The Temptation of St Anthony (c. 1556) – there are many adjectives that the drawings on display this spring in the Ashmolean Museum’s major exhibition inspire.

Bruegel to Rubens, Great Flemish Drawings, to give its full title, showcases 120 exceptional drawings from sixteenth and seventeenth-century Flanders, both from the Ashmolean’s own collections – its Old Master drawings collection is one of the museum’s strengths – and from the extraordinary holdings of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp.

Many of the drawings from Belgium are topstukken – masterpieces designated by the Flemish Government for their exceptional quality and value. Over 30 are on display for the first time ever, including some only recently discovered, and many are rarely seen in public due to their fragility and conservation needs. Motion sensors above especially sensitive drawings control the amount of light they receive.

Jacques Jordaens (1593–1678), Odysseus’s Ship Stocked with Provisions by King Alcinous(?), c. 1630–5 Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp

With additional loans from the Bodleian, Christ Church and private lenders, the drawings displayed - many of them by “the big four” of Flemish art: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and Jacques Jordaens - plus examples from other talented draughtsmen such as Hans Bol and Maerten de Vos, and lesser-known names - make for a very special exhibition.

It’s special too, singular in its presentation. Instead of focussing on the artists who made them or on the subjects, here the co-curators, the Ashmolean’s An Van Camp (who coming from Antwerp herself admits the show is close to her heart) and Virginie D’haene of the Museum Plantin-Moretus, focus instead on how the drawing sheets were used. They want to make the exhibition as accessible as possible to all visitors, says van Camp. 

Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1600). Arrangement of Flowers in a Vase with Insects, 1594. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Drawings served particular functions in artistic practice. Seen as the foundation of artistic training, drawing was sometimes called the “father” or “gateway” to other art forms. Artists would sketch and copy to hone drawing skills, and explore the world beyond the studio armed with a sketchbook, for example, while travelling as many Flemish artists did, to Italy. They were preparations for other works: paintings, designs for metalwork, glass, sculpture, tapestry, architecture and so on. And they were made as independent works of art in their own right. Most drawings are unsigned as they were intended only for personal or studio use.

A map in the opening space helpfully clarifies that the Southern Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries consisted of the Duchy of Flanders and the Duchy of Brabant - and that the term ‘Flemish’ derives from Flanders although became the accepted term for the whole area. It also explains, in terms of trade, religion and politics, why there was such prosperity in the region in those years and a consequent artistic boom. Preparatory drawings were needed for all those paintings, sculptures, tapestries and so forth desired by the prosperous.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Belvedere Torso, c. 1601–2 Rubenshuis, Antwerp

The curators have themed the three galleries around the functions of drawings. In the first, dedicated to ‘sketching and copying’, pride of place goes to the Belvedere Torso (a cast from the Ashmolean’s collection) and Rubens’ iconic sketch of it in black chalk and charcoal, made in 1601-2 on his first visit to Rome. Rubens made many copies after the antique during his stays in Italy (staying for eight years one time, between 1600-1608). The wonderful Belvedere sketch here, seemingly transforming the cold hard marble into warm, malleable flesh, was possibly made in situ in the Vatican. The statue had been excavated in the previous century and entered the papal collections.

Other highlights in this gallery include the lovely pen in brown ink sketch by Jan Brueghel 1 (Bruegel’s son, who has by this time added an ‘h’ to his name), of the ruins of the Roman baths of Caracalla in Rome (c.1593-4); a prize loan from the Museum Plantin-Moretus, Ruben’s lively Hercules Strangling the Nemean Lion, which clearly is a working sheet from all the changes and corrections visible; and Jordaens’ informal red chalk and pen study Klappeien capturing a scene of five women chatting, probably sketched from his window overlooking a street in Antwerp.

Bruegel’s The Temptation of St Anthony is in the second gallery. It’s a work that harks back to the fantastical world of Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516), complete with panoply of bizarre creatures made of jugs or body parts and all, a monstrous head floating on a river with a boat emerging from its ear and fish perched on its head, while almost unnoticed within all this, the hermit saint kneels quietly in a corner.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526–69) The Temptation of St Anthony, c. 1556. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This fascinating section of the exhibition highlights the important collaborations between artists and printmakers. Antwerp was a leading centre for drawing in the 16-17th centuries, and one reason for this is that it was an important printing and publishing hub. The Museum Plantin-Moretus is the original residence and workshop of the Plantin and Moretus publishing family, and holds the oldest printing presses in the world. The founders, Hieronymus Cock and Christopher Plantin set up the printing house in the early 16th Century. Cock’s greatest successes were in printing Pieter Bruegel’s designs, including The Temptation of St Anthony. Surprisingly, Bruegel’s name is not on the print. This, the curators suggest, was possibly a marketing ploy by Cock to sell the prints – as buyers might presume that the print was designed by Bosch.

I’ll finish with a couple of works that stood out for me among this cornucopia of drawings by Flemish masters.  They are in the final gallery, which looks at independent drawings. One is a rare survival of a ‘Friendship album’. These are albums containing drawings and poems made to be given to, or exchanged with friends, and often were started when the holder was young. The cartographer and geographer, Abraham Ortelius contributed to several apparently, including this Album Amicorum dedicated to the Antwerp historian, Emanuel van Meteren. Ortelius’ signature motif - a snake coiled around a pile of books with a globe on its head - and a globe, naturally – are just two parts of the elaborate design that he spread over two pages. And, nearby is an another wonderful friendship sheet, made in 1593 by Joris Hoefnagel for Ortelius.  Hoefnagel evidently spent a long time devising this tribute to his cartographer friend, for it teems with motifs celebrating mapmaking and the union of art and science. Captivating.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Woodland Scene, c. 1635–40. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Lastly, however, it seems fitting to end with Rubens, especially since there are more Rubens here than any other (a third of the show). It’s an atmospheric wooded scene that he sketched en plein air (outdoors) whilst living in a country manor he’d bought towards the end of his career (c.1635-40). I found it quite beautiful, movingly so, and a tranquil end to a marvellous show.


An Van Camp, Christopher Brown Curator of Northern European Art at the Ashmolean and Exhibition Curator of Bruegel to Rubens, says: ‘This is the first time these magnificent drawings from Antwerp are brought together with those from the Ashmolean, including some which have only recently been discovered and acquired. Thanks to the generous loan from the Museum Plantin-Moretus, visitors will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get close to these delicate and rarely displayed works by famous Flemish masters, as well as those by lesser-known artists who deserve a wider audience.’


Bruegel to Rubens. Great Flemish Drawings

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Showing until: 23 June 2024


Please note:

The exhibition is co-organised by the Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, and the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. Part of it was initially shown in Antwerp from 17 November 2023 to 18 February 2024 curated by Virginie D’haene. The adapted exhibition at the Ashmolean is co-curated by An Van Camp and Virginie D’haene.



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