Rubens is one of the Old Masters of European painting: not only was he established and distinguished in his artistic abilities, as the term implies, but like many Old Masters, Rubens was master over a workshop.
Beginning in the fifteenth century in Europe, Master artists began to gather students and assistants together to create workshops and studios, a development from the earlier guild system. The workshop served both to ease the master’s production to train the next generation of painters.
Painters’ workshops were particularly prevalent in the seventeenth century and became almost a necessity for artists who worked on monumental canvases. Artists such as Rubens and Rembrandt kept large studios in order to complete their numerous commissions. A studio could be made up of both assistants and students, who would help to mix pigments, prepare the canvases, and actually paint.
Placement in the workshop was also important for students to develop their technique so that they could go on to independent careers. Students could be assigned to work together on a painting in order to practice their painting, as is the case with the Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c.1650) by Rembrandt’s studio. Although John Ringling purchased this painting as a work by Rembrandt, it has since been determined to be the product of his workshop, as the painting has several distinct styles. The composition as a whole may have followed a sketch by Rembrandt.
In other instances, the workshop would complete commissions the master artist had received. In these instances, the master artist would lay out his design on a small scale, in what is called an oil sketch or modelli; this model would then be approved by the patron before serving as a guide for the members of the workshop. Another important job of the workshop was to make copies of the artist’s paintings, which served both to fulfill a demand for replicas and to train the studio in the master’s style.
Rubens in particular needed the help of his studio in order to paint his many large scale canvases, including the Triumph of the Eucharist series. His studio was so large and so well-organized that it could function entirely in his absence: the assistants could execute an entire design from his oil sketches even when he was fulfilling a commission elsewhere in Europe. For example, Rubens’s workshop painted the Spanish king’s hunting lodge near Madrid without the artist’s supervision (1636, burned 1714).
In other cases, the workshop would create a painting, and the master would complete the faces and hands, two distinctive areas of a painting. While large-size works are often products of the both the workshop and the artist himself, private commissions and portraits were more likely to be painted only by the master.
In addition to working with their studios, it was common for artists in the seventeenth century to collaborate with other painters to complete different parts of a painting. For example, as we see in the Ringling’s painting Pausias and Glycera (c. 1612-1625), Rubens completed the figures while another Flemish artist, Osias Beert (c. 1580 - 1624) worked on the flowers. Rubens also worked with Frans Snyders to paint dead animals and Jan Bruegel to paint flowers and backgrounds.
Working in a studio often served as a means of beginning one’s career as an artist. Both Rembrandt and Rubens worked with men who went on to become famous in their own right. Anthony van Dyck began as Rubens’s student, while Carel Fabritius and Nicholas Maes worked under Rembrandt. Just because a painting is the product of an artist’s workshop does not mean that it is a ‘fake’ or not worth looking at. Rather, the assistants strove to copy the master’s style as a part of their education. Moreover, the paintings by students offer insight into the process and techniques of the master.