eter Paul Rubens, the 16th-century Flemish artist, is known for his baroque, dramatic allegories of saints and sinners, gods and goddesses, the latter often semi-nude and well-rounded, deserving of the adjective Rubenesque. This remarkable artist spoke six languages, served as a diplomat, traveled extensively and often depicted exotic scenes from the distant past with crowds of figures in costumes selected from his own extensive collection.
Rubens fascination with costumes is pertinent to a current exhibition at the Getty Museum, Looking East: Ruben's Encounter with Asia on view through June 9. The focus is Ruben's exquisite 1617 drawing Man in a Korean Costume from the Getty's own collection. Ever since they purchased the work on paper from a private English collection in 1983, art historians have been perplexed. Where had Rubens seen a Korean man? Or had he? Some believe that the model must have been Antonio Corea, a Korean brought back to Italy by a Dutch trader who had bought him as a slave while in Japan. At least, it is possible that Rubens had heard about him while in working in Rome. Where had Rubens been able to see Korean silk robes? The hermit kingdom was still closed to trading and foreign visitors. But Jesuit priests active in China and Japan at the time may have acquired a Korean costume while there and brought it back to Antwerp, the great trading city where Rubens lived. Whatever the case, with black and red chalk Rubens limned a drawing that has become fascinating to scholars and now can fascinate us.
This curious drawing led Getty curator Stephanie Schrader to organize a small exhibition that asks as many questions as it answers. The impact of Rubens drawing in the 17th century can be seen in the fact that the image of the Korean man was borrowed by other artists, reproduced as a print and in books of the period. Rubens also used his face and costume in an oil sketch for an altarpiece commissioned by the Jesuits, The Miracles of St. Francis Xavier, showing the triumph of Christian faith over crumbling pagan beliefs in Asia.
The show includes another Rubens drawing of Jesuit priest Nicolas Trigault in Chinese Costume, January 17, 1617, with arms folded and hands hidden in the sleeves. But it is in three-quarters and rather stiff compared to the bold frontal gaze of the man in the Korean costume, whose eyes are angled upward though his facial structure, complete with dimples and pouty lips, appears rather European.
Yi Myeong-gi and Kim Hong-do: "Portrait of Seo Jik-su," 1796
Paint on silk, 148.8 x 72.4 cm (58 9/16 x 28 1/2 in.)
National Museum of Korea
© National Museum of Korea, Seoul
To compare the styles of portraiture from the two cultures, the show includes two Korean portraits from the same period. A display case features a pair of silk Korean robes that appear quite similar to the one rendered by Rubens though he gave them deeper folds and greater volume. Seventeenth century maps and books reveal the limited knowledge in Europe about Korea as well as detailed accounts of travels in the Far East by Jesuits and others.
By the way, Rubens' drawing of Man in a Korean Costume has long been the subject of widespread speculation in Korea where it has become the subject of a popular novel and even a musical. For more information, go to Getty.edu.
Petrus Plancius and Jan van Linschoten: Itinerario, voyage ofte schipvaert (map), 1594; Hand-colored map, 41 x 58.5 cm (16 1/8 x 23 1/16 in.); Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California. This item is reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California