What a wonderful Closer Look session on Saturday! Fifteen curious, interested, questioning art lovers in attendance. I used Ruben’s oil sketch of Constantine’s Triumphal Entry into Rome.
Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640), about 1621, oil on panel,
Collection Indianapolis Museum of Art
Rubens used oil sketches of this type to gain final approval before doing large commissioned pieces. This sketch was made for a series of tapestries covering the career of the Emperor Constantine and sponsored by the French king Louis XIII who presented the first seven tapestries (including this one) to Cardinal Barberini. A sketch like this is very special because it is entirely by the master’s hand unlike most of his finished paintings that were prepared from sketches by artists in his workshop. Rubens was a fair man and kept meticulous records charging based on his own contribution to a work of art.
An interesting question came up during the session. One of the attendees asked why Rubens gave Constantine red hair. I thought that was a very interesting question and did
Apparently a large portion of the Hellenic and Roman nobility originated from
Northern Europe. The most beautiful women and bravest men were frequently
depicted as having fair skin and blond or reddish-brown hair. Cicero the great
Roman orator is said to have had grayish-green eyes and red hair. The term “blue
bloods” comes from the bluish veins showing through fair skin and started during
the ancient era. Homer sings praises to the light-haired Achaean nobility:
Achilles, their greatest warrior, has “red-gold hair,” Odysseus, their greatest
strategist, has “chestnut hair,” his wife Penelope has “white cheeks the color
of pure snow,” Agamede, a healer and expert on medicinal plants, is “blonde,”
and King Menelaus of Sparta, the husband of Helen, has “red hair.”
Interestingly this is supported by paint samples removed from ancient sculpture
and by the facial features seen in ancient statues of many great beauties and
important men. It seems reasonable that Constantine might actually have had
reddish hair or that Rubens, with his classical knowledge and collection of
ancient busts and statutes, may have colored Constantine’s hair reddish-brown to
link him to other conquering heroes and famous warriors.
Late in his live Constantine lived a life more indulgent and had wigs in several
colors that he wore with richly colored silk robes.