Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België — Musée Oldmasters Museum: Peter Paul Rubens: Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor

On Sunday, I went to the Musée Oldmasters Museum in the Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België / Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels. I’m still getting through making sense of a couple of hundred images of works from mediæval to fin de siècle, but there were two works I kinda think would get buried amongst the almost eighty or so from the Oldmasters Museum and I’d spent so much time looking at them that they need their own post.

Peter Paul Rubens’ Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor from 1640 is the first one. Not even that big, slightly larger than a piece of A3 paper (it’s 51 x 66cm), and nowhere near as striking in colour as some of the works around it; almost unobtrusive. Yet, yet, yet, along with Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s unfinished Die Aanbiddung der Wijzen, similarly muted in tone, probably the most striking work in the museum. They could put each of these alone in their own huge room and it would not feel empty. (As usual, though, not placed so well, covered in glass, and plenty of reflected light, kinda seems the museum missed the point.)

I was photographing very underexposed to compensate for rotten lighting and reflection (or I’m just getting needlessly perfectionist), so I think the first image—the full work—from memory is the most accurate in colour and contrast. Though when I got closer, as in the single headshots and detail closeups, so much colour, reds, blues, touches of yellow and orange become visible, as well as the precision and complexity of the brushwork.

It’s an utterly fucking fantastic work. Perhaps making uneducated statements here, but with the amount of mediæval and renaissance art I’ve seen in the last year I feel somewhat ok in saying whoever the subject was, he and Rubens knew each other well. His smile is the obvious pointer towards this, but I find it in more in the other three heads, where it’s a combination of relaxed and confident posture, details in his expression, forehead, eyebrows … it’s a glorious work and to stumble into its presence as I did made all the rest of this and the other museums in Brussels worthwhile.