The studies on the recto of this sheet relate to the two standing apostles at the far right in Rubens’s Assumption of the Virgin in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (Fig. 1). In the large altarpiece, Rubens transformed the young models of this drawing into mature, bearded men reacting with awe and astonishment to Mary’s ascent into heaven on a cloud ringed by a host of little angels. The Harvard work is one of five surviving studies for the disciples and holy women who witness the event. Rubens executed these detailed chalk drawings after he had established the composition of the group in the oil modello on which he based the lower register of the altarpiece (Fig. 2).
Wielding the black chalk with broad, economical strokes, Rubens concentrated on the heads and on the arm and hand of the one model gently grasping the other youth’s shoulder. Only the face and forearm of this apostle appear in the altarpiece, where Rubens moved his hand to the right shoulder of his fellow disciple, instead of the left, as in the oil sketch and drawing. In the study for the apostle with raised arms at the upper left of the sheet, the model’s head is seen from behind and his face is nearly averted. At the lower left, Rubens drew the same head in full profile, as he would represent it in the painting. Finally, the foreshortening of the figures in the drawing anticipates the perspective of the altarpiece, where the scene is depicted from a lower viewpoint than in the modello.
On April 22, 1611, the chapter of Antwerp Cathedral reviewed two oil sketches by Rubens depicting variant compositions of the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, including the modello he would adapt for the lower half of the Vienna painting (see Fig. 2). Although the canons deferred their plan to commission a painting of the Assumption for the high altar, Rubens, perhaps expecting the project would go forward, proceeded to work on a full-scale altarpiece. He could have undertaken the chalk studies of apostles and holy women shortly after the chapter meeting or some months later. The watermark in the paper of the Harvard drawing provides some support for an early date. It is so nearly identical to the watermarks in Rubens’s Study for Christ for “The Elevation of the Cross” (1949.3) and two figure studies in Rotterdam that the four sheets must have been manufactured and purchased from the mill at the same time. Study for Christ is datable between June 1610 and the spring of 1611, and both Rotterdam works relate to paintings of 1609. That Studies for Apostles is on paper from the same batch reinforces the case for dating it to 1611.
Rubens finished the Assumption about 1612–14, but the commission for the high altar of the cathedral languished for several more years. He retained the painting until the early 1620s, when an Antwerp family acquired it for the altar of the Mary Chapel in the new Jesuit Church.
The drapery study on the verso of the Harvard sheet may relate to the dress of the woman in the lower register of the altarpiece closest to the center of the composition, although the correspondence is not exact, and only part of the right side of the skirt is visible in the finished work. Its technique is consistent with the rendering of the folds and textures of clothing in several of Rubens’s drawings, although, like the recto, it was not worked up with white chalk.