s a very young man, Paul Peter Rubens had copied Holbein's dance of death. The German artist Joachim von Sandrart has in the book Academie der Bau-, Bild- und Malerey-Künste (1675) described, how he in his youth meet the adult Rubens. Here are Sandrart's own words in English translation: »I also well remember that in the year 1627, when Paul Rubens came to Utrecht to visit Honthorst, being escorted, both coming from and returning to Amsterdam, by several artists; as we were in the boat, the conversation fell upon Holbein's Book of Cuts, representing the Dance of Death, that Rubens gave them the highest encomiums, advising me, who was then a young man, to set the highest value upon them; informing me, at the same time, that he in his youth had copied them«.
The story of Rubens and his copies of Holbein's dance of death has thus been known for centuries, but it wasn't before in the 1970ies that the drawings were identified, when they were found in a sketchbook in Amsterdam.
A short overview of the book's history goes: Rubens' younger companion, Jan Boeckhorst (1604-1668), bought the sketchbook, maybe at the sale of Rubens' estate in 1657. From there, the book came to the French art collector Pierre Crozat (1665-1740). In the catalogue of Crozats' estate in 1741, the book was catalogued as genuine Holbein.
The book then went to Georg Wilhelm Fleischmann (1693-1776), who offered the "Holbein-drawings" as a gift to Christian de Mechel, who rejected them. Mechel suggested instead that Fleischmann donated the drawings to the art museum in Basel, but here they were also rejected. Maybe because it was evident that the drawings were not made by Holbein.
After that, the book was purchased by the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Prince Galitzine. In the mean time, Mechel had regretted rejecting the offer, and Prince Galitzine allowed Mechel to borrow and copy the drawings.
Most experts formerly agreed that the drawings then ended up in the imperial collection in St. Petersburg, but this is probably a misunderstanding. In the 19th century, the drawings were bought by Ambroise Firmin-Didot, who let the Holbein-expert Alfred Woltmann investigate them. Woltmann concluded that the drawings were fake.
The fake Holbein-drawings then had a number of owners — among them Prince Johan II of Liechtenstein. In the 1970ies, the Dutch art historian I. Q. van Regteren Altena discovered that the fake Holbein-drawings were genuine Rubens-drawings, and today the drawings are situated at the copperplate museum in Antwerp.
The drawings are among the very earliest works known by Rubens. Rubens might already have copied Holbein when he was 12-13 years, before he started his formal training as an artist.
There are 44 pages with a total of 47 out of Holbein's 58 pictures. One of the drawings, The escutcheon of Death, is of inferior quality and is not attributed to Rubens. Rubens has no less than 5 pictures of Holbein's little boys. The little flabby boys must have agreed with Rubens' own rounded style. This shows that Rubens must have used the 1562-edition of Holbein's Les Images de la Mort.
Read more about how Rubens' drawings were copied by Christian de Mechel