Peter Paul Rubens

The Soldier by Rubens
Rubens, Soldier

A s a very young man, Paul Peter Rubens (1577-1640) had copied Holbein's dance of death. The German artist Sandrart has 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.
(Joachim von Sandrart, Academie der Bau-, Bild- und Malerey-Künste, 1675, translated by Thomas Warton, 1754)

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.

The history of the book starts like this: Rubens' younger companion, Jan Boeckhorst (1604-1668) also knows as Langhen-Jan ("Long John"), 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).

The 46 genuine Holbein drawings

Rubens, Peasant

At Crozats' sale in 1741, his collection was cataloged by the expert Pierre-Jean Mariette. This was the first example of the modern descriptive sale catalogue and here the drawings were attributed to Holbein:

Jean Holbein, de Basle


796: Quarante-six idem: sçavoir la suite du triomphe de la Mort qui a été gravée en bois sur ces Desseins; ils sont à la plume, & ont autrefois appartenu à Jean Boerckhorst ou Langhen-Jan, Peintre Hollandois plus les deux fameux tableaux du triomphe de la Richesse & de la Pauvreté dessinés par Frederic Zuccaro.
(Description sommaire des desseins des grands maistres d'Italie, des Pays-Bas, side 89)

The number 46 ("quarante-six") is a little strange, for all later sources say there were 44 (which is also the case today). This may be because Mariette, for unknown reasons, had bundled them together with two other drawings: triomphe de la Richesse & de la Pauvreté, but that's precisely the problem: these are not drawings by Holbein, but instead by Zuccaro after paintings by Holbein.

What is worse is that they were sold as genuine Holbein drawings — the very drawings that Holbein's famous dance of death had been cut after. It should be obvious to an expert like Mariette that these non-inverted drawings could not have been Holbein's originals. Incidentally, Mariette himself was a great admirer of Rubens' drawings, and he bought 62 of them at the same sale.(1)

Later on, Mariette wrote the opposite in his "Abecedario": The drawings had once belonged to Rubens, but were not created by him (Mariette thought). Instead they were produced by Jean Boeckhorst.

Rubens, Abbot

— J'ai vu ces desseins (1) dans la collection de M. Crozat. Ils ont véritablement appartenu à Rubens, mais ils ne sont point de lui. Ils ont été faits par un peintre hollandais, nommé Jean Boeckhorst, qui ya mis beaucoup d esprit et ne sont guère plus grands que ce qui a été gravé. […]

(1) Ceux du Triomphe de la Mort Dans le calalogue Crozat, no 796 Marielle avait dit seulement qu ils avaient appartenu à Boeckhorst.

(Abecedario de P.J. Mariette, vol. 2, page 360)

The Fall
Rubens, The Fall

Thus Mariette was the first to connect the drawings with Rubens, but his "Abecedario" was never of any importance. It was a later work, and wasn't published before 1851-1860 — i.e. long after his death and more than a hundred years after the sale of the "genuine" drawings. And it was up to the editor to add a footnote explaining that "ces desseins" referred to catalogue number 796, and that Mariette had written the opposite at that time.

At the Crozat sale the book seems to have gone to Georg Wilhelm Fleischmann (1693-1776), who offered the "Holbein-drawings" to Christian de Mechel, who rejected them. Instead de Mechel suggested 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, de Mechel had regretted rejecting the offer, and Prince Galitzine allowed him to borrow and copy the drawings.

de Mechel published engravings of the drawings — supplemented by the scenes that Rubens had not drawn, and the two drawings by Zuccaro. The release was subtitled: »Gravé d'après les Dessins originaux de Jean Holbein«. Under each print was written: »D'apres les dessins de J. Holbein« — also for those scenes, like E.g. the expulsion, which was not found in the sketchbook, and which de Mechel must therefore have copied from somewhere else.

Read much more about Christian de Mechel.

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 and added that it was useless to search for the original drawings: These would have been placed on the wood blocks (i.e. they had been destroyed in the process).(2)

The genuine Rubens drawings

Rubens, Robber

Even though the drawings were not genuine Holbein they still fetched 20,000 francs at Firmin-Didot's sale in 1879.(3) The 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.

This is not really a surprise. As seen above, the only times where experts have attributed the drawings to Holbein, have been when money was to be made. Other experts have doubted from the start, but have not had access to the drawings.

Almost at the same time that Mariette's "Abecedario" was published, and Woltmann declared the drawings to be fakes, Wornum wrote, that this was precisely the kind of drawings that a clever artist might make for his own amusement, and he mentioned how Rubens had once copied Holbein's dance of death:

Rubens, Child

The drawings which are pen and ink with washed shadows, have a somewhat remarkable pedigree, but as they really vary in many minor details from the old engraved cuts, they can scarcely have been the originals of those cuts. They are the kind of studies that some skilful artist might make for his own satisfaction and amusement from the cuts themselves. I have already related an anecdote from which we learn that Rubens made such studies, and he recommended Sandrart to do the same.
(Ralph Nicholson Wornum, Some Account of the Life and Works of Hans Holbein, 1867, page 187)

Today the drawings are situated at the copperplate museum in Antwerp. They 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.

Go forth

Read more about how Rubens' drawings were copied by Christian de Mechel.


The Fall
Rubens 1590: The Fall
Rubens 1590: Abbot
Rubens 1590: Astrologer
Rubens 1590: Knight
Rubens 1590: Duchess
Rubens 1590: Peasant
Rubens 1590: Child
The escutcheon
Rubens 1590: The escutcheon
Rubens 1590: Soldier
Rubens 1590: Robber

Other interpreters of Holbein's dance of death


Hans Holbein (1526) - so-called proofs
Hans Holbein (1538) - the originals
Heinrich Aldegrever (1541)
Heinrich Vogtherr (1544)
Vincenzo Valgrisi (1545)
Arnold Birckmann (1555)
Juan de Icíar (1555)
Valentin Wagner (1557)
Jiří Melantrich (1563)
Georg Scharffenberg (1576)
Leonhart Straub (1581)
David Chytraeus (1590)
→ Peter Paul Rubens(ca. 1590) ←
Fabio Glissenti (1596)
Eberhard Kieser (1617)
Rudolf and Conrad Meyer (1650)
Wenceslaus Hollar (1651)
De doodt vermaskert (1654)
Thomas Neale (1657)
Johann Weichard von Valvasor (1682)
Erbaulicher Sterb-Spiegel (1704)
Salomon van Rusting (1707)
T. Nieuhoff Piccard (1720)
Christian de Mechel (1780)
David Deuchar (1788)
John Bewick (1789)
Alexander Anderson (1810)
Wenceslaus Hollar (1816)
"Mr. Bewick" (1825)
Ludwig Bechstein (1831)
Joseph Schlotthauer (1832)
Francis Douce (1833)
Carl Helmuth (1836)
Francis Douce (1858, 2. edition)
Henri Léon Curmer (1858)
Tindall Wildridge (1887)

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

From Wikipedia:

"He shared Crozat's taste for the drawings of Rubens: at Crozat's sale he purchased sixty-two of the finest for his own collection".

Alfred Woltmann, Holbein und seine Zeit (Th. 2), 1868, page 410.

Die angeblichen Originalzeichnungen, welche den Kupferstichcopien Chr. v. Mechel's zu Grunde lagen, hatten aus dem Besitz des Malers Jan Bockhorst gen. Langhen Jan später ihren Weg in das berühmte Cabinet Crozat zu Paris gefunden. Daß sie früher in der Arundel'schen Sammlung in England gewesen, läßt sich nicht nachweisen, und daß W. Hollar's Stiche ebenfalls nach ihnen gemacht seien, ist falsch. Schon Hegner (S. 323) hat das widerlegt. Bei Versteigerung der Sammlung Crozat (1771) kamen sie an den Geheimen Rath Fleischmann zu Straßburg, später an den russischen Fürsten Gallizin, der sie Mechel zum Stechen lieh. Daß sie, wie allgemein behauptet wird, an die kaiserliche Sammlung zu Petersburg gekommen, ist irrtthümlich. Sie haben ihren Weg in die reiche Sammlung des Herrn Ambroise Firmin Didot in Paris gefunden. Die 44 Blätter, etwas größeren Formats, sind ungleiche, zum Theil geistvolle Copien späterer Zeit, nach den Holzschnitten gemacht, was schon das Vorkommen des Monogramms HL beim Blatt der Herzogin beweist. Manche Abweichungen kommen vor; dem Narren ist eine Kindergruppe beigegeben. Schon Mariette, der die Zeichnungen im Katalog Crozat für Holbein ausgab, spricht an einer andern Stelle von ihnen als Arbeit des Bockhorst (Abecedario). -- Es ist überflüssig, nach Originalzeichnungen zu suchen; diese befanden sich auf den Holzstöcken selbst.

Notice, that Woltmann writes 1771 instaed of 1741.

The information about the price is from the article "La vente Firmin-Didot" in Le Livre; revue du monde littéraire