Beneath the surface: X-rays on Rubens paintings to show public how artist changed key works including Venus, Mars and Cupid

By Culture24 Reporter | 11 March 2016

Rubens changed the position of Cupid on Venus's leg as the famous painting developed, say curators who have used x-rays to explore his works

An image of the painting Venus, Mars and Cupid by Peter Paul Rubens at Dulwich Picture Gallery
Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Venus, Mars and Cupid (circa 1630-1635). Oil on canvas© By permission Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
Peter Paul Rubens might not have imagined quite how forensically his changes to the fleshy, godly Venus, Mars and Cupid would have been investigated when he made the painting 381 years ago. A life-size X-ray, set on a lightbox and installed at the end of the display suites at Dulwich Picture Gallery, is about to combine the past and present looks of the work, illuminating its full colour and black-and-white incarnations.

“The position of Cupid, for example, clambering onto Venus’s leg as he holds onto her drapery and opens his mouth to receive a jet of milk from her breast, posed a particular compositional problem for Rubens,” says Dr Xavier Bray, the Chief Curator of the gallery’s forthcoming exhibition, Rubens’ Ghost, with a title defining the sense of eeriness.

An image of the painting Venus, Mars and Cupid by Peter Paul Rubens at Dulwich Picture Gallery
X-ray vision© By permission Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
“Not being satisfied with one position, he changed it as he was working – a detail not appreciated until an X-ray was taken of the painting. X-rays of paintings are normally kept within a museum’s conservation department for the scrutiny of a select few. Now the public will be able to see beneath the surface of Venus, Mars and Cupid and better appreciate the challenges Rubens was confronted with when devising his composition.”

The spoilers aren’t confined to the end painting: for The Miracles of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, made in 1619, visitors can use an iPad to detect two unseen figures when the X-ray is turned 180 degrees. Rubens painted over them and began again. In Hagar in the Desert, from sometime around 1630, the renewed exposure of infrared reflectology shows an angel in the sky and the baby Ishmael lying on the ground.

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