One hundred and twenty one

The Three Graces

c1625-8 by Peter Paul Rubens
Dulwich Picture Gallery

The Three Graces was painted some ten years before Rubens’ full colour painting that rests in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Though the compositions are essentially different, the voluptuous figures remain the same; naked and fleshy they stand in three, adjoined by touch or the winding of their seductive scarves. Yet, for all the similarities, this painting possesses a lightness that the other doesn’t. The figures refuse to stand so solidly as they do in the later work; they move with an ease and playfulness that allows them to appear as light and enticing as the scarves they dance with. Their bodies are slippery and voluptuous, but slender in their light-hearted joviality. Obviously this delicacy in appearance is easier to achieve with the medium of this painting, the wonderfully expressive oil sketch – a fluid articulation of inky soft lines with the watery marbling of the sky. This earthy coloured background of movement allows the ghostly white marble of the graces’ bodies to stand out; they are illuminated among their shadowy surroundings. This subtlety is far more effective than the oppressively bright blue of the later painting’s sky with the unnaturally gold-tinged illumination of the bodies. Here the movement of the graces is echoed in the landscape; their motion drawn in the fluidity of the lines in the earth beneath them and in the dilutions of the veined sky. These are truly Gods, enticing with animation and tied to the earth that is made to serve to them.

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