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Gallery Text

Rubens was a masterful painter of oil sketches, which he used to generate pictorial ideas and display them to his patrons and workshop assistants. This sketch may relate to a commission he received in 1639 for a series of hunting scenes for the Royal Palace in Madrid. It depicts the first of the twelve labors of Hercules: strangling the lion sent by the goddess Hera to menace the region of Nemea, in southern Greece. Hercules donned the impenetrable skin thereafter. In Rome, Rubens had drawn studies of the Farnese Hercules — one of the most famous sculptures of antiquity — and the muscular hero, a human who achieved immortality through his deeds, was a favorite subject.

Here Rubens emphasizes the confrontation between man and beast. Aside from some impasto in the lion’s mane and in the torso of Hercules, Rubens painted thinly, leaving visible the ground layer, or imprimatura, whose horizontal streaks enhance the impression of swift movement and action.

Identification and Creation

Object Number
Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish (Siegen, Westphalia 1577 - 1640 Antwerp, Belgium)
Hercules Strangling the Nemean Lion
Work Type
c. 1639
Persistent Link

Physical Descriptions

Oil with traces of red chalk on cradled panel
23 x 39.2 cm (9 1/16 x 15 7/16 in.)
framed: 40.9 x 56.9 x 7 cm (16 1/8 x 22 3/8 x 2 3/4 in.)


Recorded Ownership History
Prince Lichnowsky, Kuchelna and Berlin. Fritz Hess, Berlin-Dahlem (? - 1931); his sale, [Galerie Fischer, Lucerne, September 1, 1931, cat. no. 10]; Mr. and Mrs. Charles L. Kuhn, Cambridge, MA (1931-1961) gift; to Charles L. Kuhn III, St. Louis, MO (1961-2000), bequest; to Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, MA.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Dr. Charles and Nobuko Kuhn in honor of Charles L. Kuhn, Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, 1930-1968
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art

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Publication History

  • Peter C. Sutton and Marjorie E. Wieseman, Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, Yale University Press (New Haven/London, 2004), cat. no. 40, p. 252, color illus.
  • Peter Nisbet and Joseph Koerner, The Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, ed. Peter Nisbet, Harvard University Art Museums and Scala Publishers Ltd. (Cambridge, MA and London, England, 2007), p. 215
  • Anne T. Woollett, Davide Gasparotto, and Jeffrey Spier, Rubens: Picturing Antiquity, exh. cat., J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, 2021), pl. 23

Exhibition History

  • Calming the Tempest with Peter Paul Rubens, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 12/22/2001 - 03/17/2002
  • Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens, Bruce Museum, Greenwich, 10/02/2004 - 01/30/2005; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, 03/02/2005 - 05/15/2005; Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, 06/14/2005 - 09/11/2005
  • Re-View: S422 Ancient & Byzantine Art & Numismatics, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 04/12/2008 - 06/18/2011
  • 32Q: 2300 Dutch & Flemish, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 09/08/2017
  • Rubens: Picturing Antiquity, The Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades, 11/10/2021 - 01/24/2022

Subjects and Contexts

  • Google Art Project

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