the one-off exhibition of the largest Flemish drawings

<span>Joris Hoefnagel’s allegory for Abraham Ortelius, 1593</span><span>Photo: Antwerp, Museum Plantin-Moretus</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY4OQ–/ 1bd2ab852″ data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY4OQ–/ ab852″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Joris Hoefnagel’s allegory for Abraham Ortelius, 1593Photo: Antwerp, Museum Plantin-Moretus

The women gather in a circle and talk intensely and unconsciously, their attention shifting from one animated face to another as the conversation courses through the group. They seem completely unconscious, from a window above the courtyard where they are chatting, artist Jacques Jordaens sketches them in quick red chalk and brown ink.

It is 1659, Antwerp, and according to Jordaens’ scribble at the bottom of the newspaper, these so-called ‘sledding aunts’ are discussing local political ‘disruptions’ – perhaps the recent strike of the painters’ guild. “It’s a snapshot of everyday life that you don’t normally see,” says An Van Camp, curator of Bruegel to Rubens: Great Flemish Drawings at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Many of these treasures are rarely displayed, making this gathering a ‘once in a lifetime’ event

Jordaens’ intimate portrait of everyday life underlines how drawings can do something very different from carefully composed paintings. It’s just one highlight in an exhibition whose 120 masterpieces range from scribbles capturing fleeting bursts of imagination to drawings as finished works of art in themselves. Many of the treasures come from the Flemish government’s recently drawn up list of the 100 most important drawings in public and private hands, in addition to prized works from Ashmolean’s own collection. Due to their fragility, they are rarely exhibited, making this gathering worthy of a ‘once in a lifetime’ label.

The exhibition brings you up close to the creative processes of those who worked at the height of Baroque art during the Counter-Reformation in the Spanish Netherlands. There is a great emphasis on Antwerp’s favorite son, Rubens. His drawings here include early works that reinterpret the Danse Macabre from a series of prints by Holbein. It was a subject banned by the Inquisition in Catholic Flanders because of the very Protestant view that everyone, whether they are a monk, a child or – by implication – the supposedly holy Pope, is on an equal footing when they encounter death. The drawings testify both to Rubens’ precocious talent and to the time he spent in Germany. “It is special that Rubens had these illegal images in his possession,” says Van Camp.

Preliminary sketches for Rubens’ major works offer further insights, such as the charcoal study that evolved into the fleshy, bare-backed central figure raising Christ on the cross in his 1610–1611 altarpiece in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. What he drew later in life simply for his own pleasure adds a compelling personal dimension: peaceful forest landscapes were captured near the rural castle where he settled with his second wife.

A number of drawings from the exhibition have become works of art in their own right, such as the artists’ ‘friendship magazines’, which were given as gifts to colleagues and employees. “They are the ultimate independent drawings, made selflessly,” says Van Camp. “They allow you to unravel all the artistic networks and friendships.” Joris Hoefnagel’s exquisite 1593 allegorical drawing in gold ink was made for his cartographer friend Abraham Ortelius (his vividly illustrated map is another highlight). It shows Athena’s wise owl astride a globe, surrounded by flying insects, compasses and shells, symbolizing their union of art and science.

The more restrained works are no less memorable, such as Cornelis de Vos’s charming head of a stoic-looking little girl with chubby cheeks, or the animals that may have filled the pages of bestiaries, including a strikingly attentive life-size drawing of a dead worm. “I love the worm,” says Van Camp enthusiastically. “Every work is a masterpiece.”

Bruegel to Rubens: Great Flemish Drawings is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until June 23.

Masters at work: six highlights from the show

Main image: Joris Hoefnagel – Allegory for Abraham Ortelius (1593)
‘Friendship magazines’ were works created not for monetary gain, but as gifts exchanged between artists. As evidenced by this jewel-like work given to his mapmaker friend Ortelius, Hoefnagel was one of the few artists who excelled in miniature paintings, depicting flora and fauna in great detail.

Pieter Bruegel I – The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1556)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s preparatory drawing for his famous print depicted a world turned upside down, with nightmarish half-human hybrid creatures and ships racing around a gigantic screaming head.

Jacques Jordaens – Five women chatting (1659)
Jordaens could use his expert hand for everything. He was a master of character sketches and made studies of heads that would end up in his paintings. This work was not planned: a moment that he put on paper in all its lively directness from his window in Antwerp.

Maerten de Vos – Cadmus and Hermione: design for the decorations of the city of Antwerp (ca 1594)
The exhibition includes sketches for temporary decorations for festivities that are now lost to time. This pen-and-ink drawing freezes a moment in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, when the cursed couple Cadmus and Hermione are transformed into snakes with dragon heads. The drawing was made in preparation for a celebration welcoming the area’s Catholic governor at a time when the area was torn by war between Catholics and Protestants.

Peter Paul Rubens – The Abbot and Death (1590)
Rubens was only 13 when he made this drawing, based on Holbein’s print series, the Dance of Death. In Catholic Flanders, the idea that everyone would be equal before death was a forbidden Protestant subject. Rubens’ series includes a knight, a judge and, in this image, an abbot who is carried away by the skeletal reaper who brutally dons the religious leader’s miter.

Joannes Fijt – Study of a dog (1630s)
This wonderfully gnarled dog by master “animalier” Fijt shows the painter’s incredible skill in capturing this moving animal in all its doggy vitality. This particular dog was a recurring Fijt model, perhaps even his pet.

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