This Rubens Masterpiece Was Significantly Altered by Another Artist

Important details in “The Judgement of Paris” appear to have been changed several decades after the artist’s death

Rubens' 'The Judgement of Paris'
The Judgement of Paris, Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1632–35 The National Gallery, London

After over a year of conservation work, The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Rubens is back on display at the National Gallery in London. The project has given experts a more comprehensive understanding of the painting’s history—and revealed that other artists altered the masterpiece following Rubens’ death in 1640.

“It looks great—but we are not seeing the picture Rubens intended,” curator Bart Cornelis tells the Art Newspaper’s Maev Kennedy.

Painted around the 1630s, the artwork is one of Rubens’ most famous and beloved paintings. According to the gallery, the Flemish artist, renowned for his voluptuous depictions of the human form and its beauty, created the piece in the final decade of his life, which was also the pinnacle of his career.

X-ray analysis
X-rays revealed how Rubens originally positioned Paris and Mercury. The National Gallery, London

The painting portrays Paris, the Greek mythological figure, sitting in the woods with Mercury, deciding which of three goddesses—Venus, Minerva and Juno—is the “fairest.” By choosing Venus, the prince sets events in motion that will lead to the abduction of Helen, sparking the Trojan War.

Researchers studied the piece using a variety of non-invasive X-ray imaging techniques. Their findings suggest that a French artist made significant changes to the painting between 1676 and 1721.

According to a statement from the gallery, conservators “faced difficult choices” throughout the process: Should they try to restore Rubens’ original composition or preserve the changes made after his death? 

“It was a real question of how far we went—we could take off everything back to the original Rubens layer, but how much would be left and in what condition?” conservator Britta New tells the Art Newspaper. “We might end up leaving the picture as an ugly wreck.”

Uncovering restoration secrets of Rubens's 'The Judgement of Paris' | National Gallery

Ultimately, the museum decided that the “painting’s successive reworkings were part of the painting’s history and should be kept.”

In some ways, the alterations changed the narrative of the grand artwork. The French artist toned down the painting’s “voyeuristic aspects,” per the gallery.

“Although there was no change to the painted nudity of the goddesses, the scene was made less erotic, more modest by covering up certain elements,” New tells the Telegraph’s Craig Simpson.

The alterations also removed the putti, or cherubs, tugging at the goddesses’ robes and satyrs peeking in on the scene from the trees.

Other significant changes concern Paris himself. In Rubens’ version, the prince wears a hat and holds the apple in his lap. In the altered version, Paris’ hat is removed. He sits upright and points the apple at Venus—already making his choice instead of merely contemplating it.

While the decision to paint over Rubens’ work may seem confounding to modern art lovers, the practice was not uncommon at the time. In fact, new research shows that Rubens himself altered a recently rediscovered artwork, The Holy Family With the Infant Saint John the Baptist in an Extensive Landscape With Travellers by Herri met de Bles. Sotheby’s will sell the painting in early July.

Conservator Britta New
Conservator Britta New works to restore The Judgement of Paris. The National Gallery, London

Rubens also reworked parts of The Judgement of Paris, adding extra materials to expand the oak panel and changing the dimensions of certain figures.

With the conservation work complete, visitors can once again see Rubens’ masterpiece. Experts have given the piece a new antique frame from the late 17th century and removed discolored varnish. Per the Art Newspaper, outlines and traces of the “ghostly” putti have been uncovered, allowing viewers to see hints of Rubens’ original work.

“We certainly could never ethically have taken the painting back to when it left Rubens’ studio. There’s too much history,” says New in a gallery video. “We’re in a much better position now to reintegrate this image and tell the story as it is now, while still allowing some of the history of the picture to be visible.”

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