About this artwork

The lively brushstrokes and convincing vivacity of the face of this elderly man suggest that it is a study made directly from life. It could almost be a finished portrait, but is a preparatory study, used for the head of St Ambrose in a grand altarpiece. Rubens often made detailed studies of individual figures for large compositions, in addition to sketches of the whole design. These could be used by the master or copied by assistants working on the final painting. The subject of the altarpiece is St Ambrose Refusing the Emperor Theodosius Admission to the Church of Milan (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

Sir Peter Paul Rubens

Sir Peter Paul Rubens

Rubens, an outstanding artist, scholar and diplomat, enjoyed a long, prolific and internationally successful career. He painted themes from the Bible and classical mythology, portraits, landscapes and allegorical subjects. After spending eight years in Italy, he returned to Antwerp in 1608, where he set up a flourishing workshop. He generally painted on a large scale, and excelled in describing dramatic episodes through ample figures in dynamic poses, sumptuous colour and brilliant lighting. Rubens employed many assistants to meet the demand for his work, which came from wealthy patrons at home and abroad, including the kings of Spain, France and Britain.