The Princeton University Art Museum Has Newly Reattributed a Painting to Rubens

The Princeton University Art Museum is preparing to announce that a work in its collection has been re-attributed to Flemish artist Peter Paul RubensARTnews has learned. The work in question appears to be The Death of Adonis, an oil sketch on a wood panel depicting the hunter laid flat as a boar attacks.

In a statement to ARTnews, Ronni Baer, distinguished curator and lecturer at the Princeton University Art Museum since 2019, said the museum’s curatorial and conservation team were “thrilled” to have made the discovery. She noted that the preparatory work was particularly important given that the actual painting—commissioned by King Philip IV of Spain—had not survived the intervening centuries.

An email sent to ARTnews via a press relation firm in April announced a “major conservation discovery” at the museum. However, the museum decided this summer to explore another direction for the story, ending communications. While the email did not name the painting, it described a “once-overlooked painting” that was now confirmed to be an “authentic” work by Rubens. There was also attached to the email three images of the same artwork in various stages of conservation; each depicted a man felled by an enraged boar. The email further established that, when Princeton acquired the painting in the 1930s, it was believed to be a Rubens, but in the 1990s it was relabeled “formerly attributed to Peter Paul Rubens.” Then, in 2019, Baer, and Bart Devolder, its chief conservator, gave the discarded canvas a second look. It was pulled from the collection for restoration and reevaluated by experts.

The Princeton University Art Museum website was updated to attribute the work solely to Rubens, making it one of only four works in the collection to carry that distinction. Further, an image of The Death of Adonis published on the museum’s online catalogue matches the image of the recently restored work sent to ARTnews.

While the museum is closed until 2025, when a sprawling new museum building is set to open, the newly-attributed Rubens is a major win for an institution recently ensnared in controversy. Its new building was designed by David Adjaye, who was accused in July of sexual misconduct. At the time, museum director James Steward told The Daily Princetonian, “With construction so far advanced, most of our work with Adjaye is behind us. We have a responsibility to all the people involved in this project and all those who will benefit from it to see it to completion…”

The painting’s history, meanwhile, touches on the complexities—and shortcomings—of the process of art attribution.

An online bibliography of The Death of Adonis provided by Princeton begins with the Sackville collection at Knole Castle in England, which sold the painting directly to the university in October 1930, according to a New York Times article at the time. The Times reported then that the painting had been mentioned in the inventory of Rubens’s “chief assistant” and “certified as genuine by Dr. Hermann Gluck of the National Museum at Vienna.” Frank Jewett Mather Jr., a Princeton professor and an art critic, facilitated the sale.

“Rubens is perhaps the most essential artist for any educational museum,” Mather Jr. wrote in a bulletin for the Department of Art and Archaeology that year. “Fortunately he was prolific. The problem is to get him autobiographically, eliminating those thousands of canvases made on his designs by assistants.”

Baldwin Smith, Princeton’s then-supervisor of undergraduate curriculum, stressed the authenticity of the new acquisition in his address to a visiting committee in 1931: “The student can be made to see, in this picture the free, swinging movement and the dynamic rush of the hunt swept over the canvas without studied deliberation, as if Rubens, enthusiastically, sensuously and decoratively, had felt the play of it in his whole body and so had spontaneously painted his sensations almost as intuitive gestures.”

Princeton listed the painting as a genuine Rubens until at least 1966, per the Record of the Art Museum.

In Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard (subtitled, “an illustrated catalogue raisonné of the work of Peter Paul Rubens based on the material assembled by the late Dr. Ludwig Burchard in twenty-six parts”) more than 1,000 artworks are attributed to Rubens. But, since Corpus’s publication, the number of accepted genuine Rubens has risen and fallen as experts variously grant and withhold attribution. Complicating matters, after his death in 1960, Burchard was accused of misattributing at least 60 works for personal financial gain. Corpus was only published posthumously in 1968 after significant review by other Rubens scholars, but remains a respected repository of information on the artist.

Rubens famously did not sign all his works and sometimes modified or finished works produced by studio assistants. All of this has made attribution complex. Take Samson and Delilah (1609–10), which has been in the collection of the National Gallery of London since 1980 and was once authenticated by Burchard. The institution has dismissed for decades a long line of critics and a slew of scientific tests using AI that determined there was a 91 percent probability that the artwork was not authentic.

“Pronounced similarities of subject matter or motif … are no guarantors of authenticity,” Michael Daley of ArtWatch UK, an organization which keeps a critical eye on attributions, wrote in a post on its website related to Samson and Delilah. “What is most distinctive to a master and impossible to replicate – even by close associates within his own studio – is what is termed his touch, his individual, characteristic manner and speed of execution.”

Unlike Rembrandt, his near contemporary and a commonly misattributed Dutch master who had a prolific studio practice, Rubens doesn’t have a centralized body for granting certificates. In the 1960s, a group of scholars formed the Rembrandt Research Project to help set a standard by which to differentiate genuine Rembrandts from merely Rembrandt-esque paintings. While not a faultless system, and one that has since disbanded, it keeps a database of technical information, inventories, and noted issues in the history of Rembrandt attribution. For his part, Rubens has individuals, whose judgments are determined by science, comparison, their own subjective gaze, and varying life experiences.

Doubts about The Death of Adonis seem to have emerged with the respected compendium Rubens in America (1947), by Julius S. Held and Jan-Albert Goris. “The sketch is hardly more than a copy of an original by Rubens. Yet even the design lacks the rhythmic force of the master,” Held and Goris wrote.

Corpus Rubenianum includes The Death of Adonis, and offers some context for its flip-flopping attribution history. The work is “not in the best condition,” Burchard wrote, adding, “I believe that [Julius] Held’s recent acknowledgement of the panel at Princeton as the original by Rubens can be accepted…” So, if Burchard is to be trusted, sometime between 1947 and 1968, Held changed his opinion.

Held returned to the controversy some years later following his off-screen epiphany. In the 1980 Princeton-published catalogue The oil sketches of Peter Paul Rubens, Held wrote, “Contrary to my previously published opinion, I am now convinced that the Princeton sketch is the original one.”






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