peter paul rubens (1577-1640)
Cain slaying abel (1608-09)
Oil on panel
13.1 x 94.2cm
Samuel Courtauld Trust: Princes Gate Bequest, 1978
The painting has been restored as part of the Bank of America Art Conservation Project
Peter Paul Rubens’s early masterpiece Cain Slaying Abel returned to public display in The Courtauld Gallery in February 2012 following conservation treatment.
The painting represents a notorious subject from the Old Testament. Cain, Adam and Eve’s eldest son, murdered his brother Abel in a fit of jealousy while both siblings were making a sacrifice to God. Rubens shows Cain attacking Abel with an animal's jawbone.
Cain Slaying Abel was probably made to advertise Rubens' abilities to potential patrons. This may explain his use of oak with some poorer quality sapwood for the panel. Rubens seems to have worked quickly not wasting time on areas of the painting which would be less visible, such as Cain's back.
Cain Slaying Abel by Peter Paul Rubens © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
to Antwerp from Italy
One of the first works of Rubens's artistic maturity and representing a key moment in his early career, Cain Slaying Abel was painted around 1609, shortly after he had returned to his home town of Antwerp following eight years spent living and working in Spain and Italy.
The dynamic inventions of Renaissance painters and sculptors had impressed him deeply. Abel’s writhing pose is indebted to a drawing by Michelangelo, while Cain’s contorted muscles resemble Tintoretto’s depictions of the male body.
Studies after Michelangelo's Samson and the Philistines by Jacopo Tintoretto © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
The dynamic composition and powerful portrayal of the Old Testament scene demonstrate the artist’s remarkable virtuosity in the depiction of flesh and musculature, although the violence of the subject is at odds with Rubens’s beautiful rendition of Abel’s body.
Detail of Abel's flesh and animal skin
The Flemish master Rubens (1577-1640) was one of the most exciting and explosive artistic talents of early modern Europe. His energetic compositions like Cain Slaying Abel greatly influenced his contemporaries as well as future generations of artists.