Fortune1636 - 1638. Oil on canvas, 182.3 x 100.5 cm.
In the autumn of 1636, Peter Paul Rubens was commissioned by agents of Philip IV to produce his largest series of painted canvases to decorate the recently completed hunting lodge at El Pardo, near Madrid -the Torre de la Parada. Documents reveal that he was already at work by December. His main assignment comprised some sixty mythological subjects and individual figures, chiefly drawn from Ovid´s Metamorphoses. Characteristically, Rubens prepared rapid oil sketches on small toned panels prior to executing the large canvases; some are by his own hand, like Fortuna, but others were delegated to his associates in Antwerp, such as Jacob Jordaens. This collaboration was necessary partly because of the sheer size of the commission, but also because Rubens was experiencing a serious illness. Despite complaints about slowness of execution, the first canvases were shipped to Madrid in March 1638 and arrived by May I, providing a reasonable time frame for dating the pictures. Unlike many of the narrative images in the series, this work depicts a single, full-length woman in a tightly constructed vertical composition, removed from any narrative context. Instead, she represents the allegorical figure of Fortune, which embodies the varied chances of life. Rubens depicted this conceit as a nude female figure, resembling the tradition of the birth of Venus, emerging, full-grown, from the sea. Choosing to emphasize Fortuna´s solid, fleshy form, Rubens departed from such idealized models of Venus, however, and executed a figure that has the tangible presence to occupy our world. The oil sketch for this picture, now in Berlin, is enlarged at left and right despite its small size. The finished canvas was surely painted by Rubens himself, as is evident from his finely modeled passages of face and skin, but also from the numerous changes that he made between the sketch and the final canvas. In the Prado picture, the figure is seen from the side and turns to face the viewer, whereas in the initial sketch she remains self-absorbed and focused in concentration, with her head tilted backward. In addition, the sketch shows her right arm raised and left arm lowered, extended behind her back as she steps onto her globe with her left foot; all of these positions are fully reversed in the Prado painting, now filled with forward movement and powerful energy. These changes result in a more frontal view of the female body, exposing Fortuna´s breasts and emphasizing the soft flesh of her torso. As she gazes obliquely beyond the canvas, she engages the viewer and creates an eroticized tension between the real and pictorial space. This nude figure can be recognized by her allegorical attributes and her instability. Not only does she bestride tumultuous ocean waves during a storm, but she is poised unsteadily on a crystal globe at the bottom center of the canvas. Her billowing veil and wet, stringy hair underscore the force of the gale in which she advances. More commonly, Renaissance allegories of Fortune showed the figure with a rudder and sail, accentuating her mastery over such unpredictable sea storms, but Rubens instead called attention to her unstable situation. Previous artists had also incorporated the globe with Fortune to highlight both the uncertainty of her outcomes as well as the universal sway she holds over humanity. Notable early examples of Fortune on a globe include Albrecht Dürer´s two engravings of full-length, standing female nudes in profile (c. 1495/96; c. 1501). Rubens´s likely model for this image was the emblem book of Andrea Alciati, first published in 1531 and reprinted numerous times. The motto for his Emblem 97 explains that Art was developed to counteract the effects of Fortune, but when Fortune is bad it often needs the assistance of art. In the 1621 Padua edition of Alciati, the image contrasts Fortuna, standing on a globe with a fluttering veil, with Hermes/Mercury, messenger god and god of art and commerce. Perhaps Rubens originally paired Fortuna with a solitary Mercury (Museo Nacional del Prado, 1636-38) in the Torre de la Parada installation, which is now unknown (Text drawn from Silver, L.: Splendor, Myth, and Vision. Nudes from the Prado, 2016, pp. 124-127).