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Henry IV of France at the Siege of Amiens in 1597
  • Artist Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 - 1640)
  • TitleHenry IV of France at the Siege of Amiens in 1597
  • Dating 1630
  • Technique/MaterialOil on canvas
  • Dimensions354 x 273 cm
  • AcquisitionGift of the Association of Friends of the Gothenburg Museum of Art, 1950
  • CategoryOil painting
  • Inventory NumberGKM 1380
  • Display StatusOn display in The Baroque Hall (Room 4)
The famous Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) often received commissions for large, decorative works from Europe’s rulers as well as the Catholic Church.

In the Museum’s collection is The Adoration of the Magi, which with its monumental composition and sumptuous colours is a typical example of his religious paintings. This major canvas was executed towards the end of the 1620s by Rubens and his assistants as an altarpiece for a now unknown church.

In 1622, the artist had signed a contract for two series of paintings for the Luxembourg Palace, Queen Dowager Maria de Medici’s newly built palace in Paris. The paintings intended for the first gallery, which hailed Mary as the protector of peace, were in place by the mid-1620s. The second gallery was dedicated to her husband, Henry IV, who had been assassinated in 1610. In no fewer than twenty-four paintings, the king would be glorified as a war hero.

It was only in 1630 that Rubens and his assistants began on the paintings. The following year, Maria de Medici was placed under house arrest by her son, Louis XIII, at the urging of Cardinal Richelieu. Suddenly Rubens was left without a buyer, so he was forced to stop work.

His commission had been for sixteen paintings depicting the key battles in which the king himself had participated. Their height was to be larger than the width as they were to be hung between the windows of the long walls of the gallery. At the far end of the gallery three large paintings in horizontal format were to be hung side by side.

Six of the unfinished canvases are mentioned in the probate inventory at Rubens’s death. Five of them survive in various museum collections and one is missing. The Museum’s painting was purchased as recently as 1950. The subject is Henry IV at the Siege of Amiens in Picardy. The city had been occupied by the Spanish in 1597, and it was only after a prolonged siege that the French succeeded in retaking it.

The sixteen paintings were to have hung fairly high on the wall, so the visitor would have been able to study only the lowest figures closely. These relatively large figures were the ones Rubens chose to do himself. The upper parts of the paintings, with their prospects of various battlefields, he left to Peeter Snayers, a specialist in battle painting who was based in Brussels. The large trees that frame the figures were probably painted by the landscapist Lodewijk de Vadder, who lived in the same city. The trees help give the pictures depth. To enhance the sense of a flat landscape stretching far into the distance, the artists have used aerial perspective, which was standard in Flanders. In the Museum’s painting, the hill in the foreground is done in warm, brown tones. Green dominates the middle plane, while a blue tone, already noticeable at the height of the siege-works, increases towards the city and the hazy horizon. The perspective is reinforced by the long cavalry column riding away from the viewer, a serpentine effect taken up by the River Somme.

Both of Rubens’s colleagues had time to complete their part of the work. Snayers’s contributions consist of the many hundreds of painstakingly detailed small figures. They contrast with Rubens’s significantly larger figures in the foreground. Thanks to the circumstances that left the painting unfinished, we are able to study how the artist worked. He began by building up the dynamic composition of the figures with brown paint and rapid, sweeping brushstrokes. Then he continued by using shading in thin brown paint. It seems likely that it was at this point he also added the white highlights, which helped to give volume to the figures. In the next stage, the local colours were brought into play. The basic idea seems to have been that the king and his white horse would stand out in their chilly palette, contrasting with the warm colours surrounding them.

Henry IV was long dead, and Rubens had never seen him in person. By studying engravings, sculptures, and medals, he managed to bring him up to life in the paintings for the Luxembourg Palace. In the Museum’s large canvas, his portrait has been done with a fast, steady hand, almost as if it was done from life.

Björn Fredlund from The Collection Gothenburg Museum of Art, Gothenburg 2014