Rubens: Illustrator of Science

On 19 March 2021, by Philippe Dufour

A preparatory drawing from the Marquis of Lagoy’s fabulous collection reveals a little-known facet of the Antwerp master: he was also a vignette illustrator. This study is a concentration of his usual virtuosity.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), draft vignette for Opticorum libri sex by Franciscus Aguilon, c. 1613, pen and brown ink, brown ink wash and white gouache highlights, grooved with a stylus, 9.5 x 14.3 cm (3.74 x 5.62 in).
Estimate: €200,000/300,000

At first sight, the lively, whimsical scene may seem unfathomable: assisted by putti, a bearded man poses as Atlas, but on his back, the world is replaced by an armillary sphere. A fluttering putto holds a torch whose light projects the instrument’s shadow on the floor so that another can measure it with a compass and instruct a third. Everything becomes clear when one learns that this is a draft vignette for a scientific book by Franciscus Aguilonius (1566-1617), Opticorum libri sex. The creator of this playful scene in pen and brown ink, brown ink wash and white gouache highlights, grooved with a stylus, is Peter Paul Rubens.

This highly accomplished project began in 1613, when the Plantin press, headed by the famous Antwerp printers of the same name, commissioned the Flemish master to illustrate a work by Father Aguilonius, whose real name was François d’Aguilon. He joined the Jesuit order in 1582 and turned out to be a real genius: a physicist, theologian, architect and mathematician all rolled into one. He had a major influence on physics and became famous for his research on optics. Opticorum libri sex summarized his knowledge of the subject and, for the first time, posited the idea of stereographic projection.

The imposing 684-page book was just the first volume of this colossal work, the only one to be published in his lifetime. His publishers chose Rubens to design the frontispiece and six vignettes for the titles of the different sections. The frontispiece features mythological figures, while the headpieces depict a scientist performing various experiments assisted by putti. Rubens took inspiration from Otto Venius, his teacher, who in 1608 wrote Amorum emblemata, which was already enlivened by little cupids. Théodore Galle (1571-1633) engraved all these compositions but reversed the scene here in the final print. The work is all the more precious as only three other examples from the preparatory series are known: a draft frontispiece at the British Museum and two vignette drawings at Washington’s National Gallery. This illustration will be included in volume II of Rubens: the Drawings (1609-1621) by Ann-Mary Logan and Kristin Lohse Belkin, who have incidentally confirmed its authenticity.

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