PRINT September 1964



THE “LAST SUPPER” BY Peter Rubens, which came to The Seattle Art Museum through the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1954, could surely be called not only one of the great paintings in the Seattle Art Museum, but also one of Rubens’ most intriguing and valuable oil sketches because of its composition and its historical function as a record of a lost work of art. It is small, measuring only 17 1/4'' x 17 1/4'' and is painted on an oak panel. This Last Supper sketch, together with other sketches executed by Rubens for the same commission, supposedly remained in his house until his death.

Since Rubens employed a great number of assistants to help execute commissions, it is rare to find a Rubens painting executed entirely by the artist. Only the oil sketches most surely represent a work of art conceived and painted solely by Rubens himself. He presented his ideas to his patrons in painted sketches. In this particular instance we also know of a preparatory drawing now in the British Museum. Light, color, the painterly quality of his brushstrokes as well as movement were all present in these sketches. Rubens thought in paint, in moving form rather than in line. His sketches then, true Baroque masterpieces, show us Rubens’ work in its most typical and pure form. The Seattle Art Museum sketch of the Last Supper uses warm glowing colors, reds, yellows and blues primarily. It is interesting to notice that only seven of the twelve apostles are represented. The unusual point of view taken by Rubens shows us a glimpse of a balcony right under the cupola of a vast building and the rest of the apostles are no longer in our, the spectator’s, line of vision. The picture plane appears to be penetrated, and Christ and the apostles, grouped diagonally around a table, seem to be floating in space. The basket of fruit and the pitcher hover above us. Our eyes are pulled upward towards the ceiling and towards the sky which is visible through the oculus, or opening, behind the Baroque drapery. This illusion created by Rubens, of the Last Supper taking place close to the top of the dome inside a church, is a very suitable composition for a ceiling decoration. The foreshortening, called by the Italians “Sotto in Su,” or seen from below, indicates the function of the projected painting. The position of the spectator standing in the church is taken into consideration. The composition also strongly stresses diagonals and an asymmetrical composition, which was so favored by Baroque artists. The center is avoided; Christ sits at the right and even the chandelier hangs more to the right. Our eye is lead to Christ by the attention the apostles focus on Him, as well as by the movement of light, of drapery and of the heads. The beholder’s eye is pulled upwards and towards Christ in one swift, sweeping motion.

The composition of the Last Supper sketch was, indeed, designed for a ceiling. Rubens had been commissioned by the Jesuits on March 29, 1620 to execute and deliver within a year 39 sketches, painted only by his hand, as a proposal for an intended ceiling decoration for the new Jesuit church, S. Carlo Borromeo in Antwerp. The finished oil paintings, based on his sketches, were to be executed by Rubens and his assistants under his supervision. Rubens painted the sketches for the ceiling in 1620–1621. According to the description of the new church by Gevartius we know that the ceiling-paintings were finished and in place by July 1622. A fire unfortunately destroyed the ceiling paintings in 1718. Were it not for some of the surviving sketches and 36 engravings done by Jacob de Wit in 1711–1712, a major part of Rubens’ work would have been lost forever. The Last Supper as it was seen on the ceiling of the aisles of S. Carlo was octagonal in shape and one of the larger compositions of this series of ceiling paintings, and the small sketch still preserved at the Seattle Art Museum helps us to visualize it.

Barbara Rumpf,
Associate Curator of Education,
Seattle Art Museum