|George Villiers was a favourite of both King James I and King Charles I. He was raised to the peerage as Viscount in 1616, quickly becoming an Earl and Marquis within two years. Royal favour made him the richest most powerful noble in the land and as Duke of Buckingham he amassed a huge art collection. He first encountered Rubens in Paris in 1625 on the occasion of Charles’s marriage-by-proxy to Henrietta Maria, sister of the King of France. Newly appointed to the post of General to the Fleet, he commissioned an enormous equestrian portrait of himself in this role. This present painting is a 17th century copy of the sketch Rubens produced for that painting. The original modello or sketch is now in the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
It was not uncommon for Rubens to have his sketches copied at the time. The inventories of three principal painter/art dealers in Antwerp, Herman de Neyt (c.1605-1642), Victor Wolfvoet (1612-1652) and Jan Wildens (c.1585-1653) all include a substantial number. In 1624, Wildens, who frequently collaborated with Rubens and was an executor of his estate, opened a picture gallery. The inventory of 1653, undertaken by his son Jerimias, lists fourteen sketches after Rubens. Such copies could have been produced by the artist-dealers themselves and others may have been created in Rubens’s studio by pupils or assistants.
Considerable work has been previously undertaken concerning the copies of the sketch of the Duke of Buckingham. Hans Vlieghe in 1987 listed five known copies, three of which were actual paintings and only two, executed like Rubens, on panel. Marjorie Wieseman equally endorsed this view in 2004. The version presented here is an entirely recent discovery, only having come to light in 2007. Not only does it come closer in size to the original in the Kimbell, it is also executed on panel and is truer, compositionally, than any of the other copies. The style and manner is very similar to the version in Gemalde Galerie, Schwerin, a copy that Julius Held deemed to be the best, and it is possible that they are both by the same hand.
The elegance and bravura that captivated Buckingham’s admirers are evident in Rubens’s portrait. As General of the Fleet, clad in armour, with blue sash, bright red breeches and fluttering crimson and pink cape, the duke lifts his baton as his horse rears on command. Beneath him, the sea god Neptune, with trident, and a naiad, adorned with pearls, indicate the duke’s dominion over the sea. Overhead, a winged allegory of Fame signals victory with a trumpet in hand blowing wind from his mouth to propel the Fleet, the masts of which are visible in the distance beyond some reeds.
Privately Rubens noted Buckingham’s “arrogance and caprice” and predicted that he was “heading for the precipice.” History was to prove him right as the duke’s unsuccessful military campaigns against Spain and France were much resented, and in 1628 he was assassinated. The final large oil on canvas completed by Rubens was dispersed with the rest of the Duke’s collection after his death. In more recent times the property of the Earl of Jersey at Osterley Park, England it was destroyed by fire in 1949.
Reference: Peter C. Sutton and Marjorie E. Wieseman: Drawn by the Brush – Oil sketches by Peter Paul Rubens; Yale; 2004
Hans Vlieghe: Corpus Rubenianum pt. XIX; L. Burchard, 1987
Julius S. Held: The Burlington Magazine; Vol.CXVIII, No 881; August 1976