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Identification and Creation

Object Number
Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish (Siegen, Westphalia 1577 - 1640 Antwerp, Belgium)
Head of Nero Caesar Augustus
Work Type
c. 1638
Persistent Link

Physical Descriptions

Brown ink, black chalk, scratchwork at the proper left eye and nose, on cream antique laid paper, mounted down, two brown ink framing lines
27.7 x 19.8 cm (10 7/8 x 7 13/16 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • collector's mark: lower right, black ink, stamp: L. 1740 (Jean-Denis Lempereur)
  • inscription: mount, verso, upper center, brown ink: No. 23.
  • inscription: mount, verso, upper right, graphite: Cabinet L'empereur.
  • inscription: mount, verso, lower right, graphite: 6 / GA
  • watermark: none


Recorded Ownership History
Pierre Crozat, Paris, sold; [Mariette, Paris, 10 April 1741 and following days, probably under lot 810]; to L. J. Lempereur, Paris (L. 1740, lower right), sold [Chariot, Joullain and Boilleau, Paris, 24 May 1773 and following days, under lot 305]; to Pierre François Basan, Paris. Henri Duval, Liège, sold; [Muller, Amsterdam, 22-23 June 1910, lot 335.] Charles A. Loeser, Florence; bequest of Charles A. Loeser, 1932.360.

Published Text

Drawings from the Age of Bruegel, Rubens, and Rembrandt: Highlights from the Collection of the Harvard Art Museums
William W. Robinson and Susan Anderson
Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2016)

Catalogue entry no. 77 by William W. Robinson:

Head of Nero was the model for an engraving by Paulus Pontius published in 1638 in a set of twelve plates that depict herms and busts of famous Greek and Roman men (Fig. 1).1 The series reproduced “antique sculptures of certified portraits” in order to establish a reliable iconography of a dozen illustrious figures of the ancient world.2 A text engraved beneath each image credits Rubens with drawing the model ex marmore antiquo (from an antique marble). However, the bust represented in the Harvard work was probably not ancient, but a Renaissance forgery based on numismatic portraits of Nero, and the attribution of the drawing to Rubens must be qualified.3

The models for the heads of Nero, Brutus, and Seneca in the series were delineated in brown ink over black chalk with profuse curved, parallel, and cross-hatched strokes.4 The systematic pen work of these studies bears little resemblance to the technique of secure drawings by Rubens from the 1630s, and some authorities have proposed that it is not by him, but by an assistant charged with completing the image over the master’s black-chalk sketch.5 Examination of the Harvard sheet with infrared light has confirmed this division of labor, revealing the integral and specific underdrawing that guided the unidentified draftsman who elaborated Rubens’s design (Fig. 2).6 Not only does the robust chalk sketch define the contours and most details, but the vitalization of the inert facial features of the marble original, an imaginative intervention only Rubens could contribute, is clearly articulated. A different artist executed all the pen work, using the same ink throughout the finished state of the drawing.7 The engraved text P. P. Rubens delineavit (P. P. Rubens drew it) on the prints thus refers to his invention of the image and supervision of its completion, but does not certify that the model is entirely by his hand.8

Pierre-Jean Mariette, who saw the Harvard work and the model for the engraving Bust of Seneca in the fabled collection of Pierre Crozat (died 1740), quipped that they were “hardly or not at all [drawn] in the antique manner.”9 Mariette did not suspect that an assistant executed the pen work, but he rightly perceived that Rubens and his collaborator altered the marmoreal aspect of the originals by imparting a lifelike vitality to the eyes and hair and a palpable, fleshy sensuality to Nero’s cheeks and lips. This evidently ran counter to his belief that an antiquarian image should replicate the appearance and style of the artifact.

The pen work of the drawing follows the underlying sketch in black chalk, except for an adjustment to the proper right ear, which was shifted higher and to the left, and a shortening of the lock of hair below it (Fig. 3). Minor revisions took place as the artist elaborated the image in brown ink. After extending the socle at the left, he partially shaded over the addition. To the right, three strokes embedded in the cross-hatched shadow prefigure the form given to the base in the print: two right-angled lines indicate the extension of the lower tier, and a short arc suggests the curve and taper of the upper level.10 Globules of pooled ink on the iris and brow of Nero’s proper left eye and between the eye and nose were partially scratched out to lighten excessively opaque accents. Pontius added the niche, but otherwise reproduced the drawing accurately and in reverse, although the model was not incised for transfer to the engraving plate. Having delegated the completion of the drawing to an assistant, Rubens intervened again on a proof of the print, using oil paint to enhance the light–dark contrasts, delete the proper left ear, and reduce the hair on the back of the head. Pontius made these revisions in the published state (see Fig. 1).11


1 Paulus Pontius, after Peter Paul Rubens, Bust of Nero (Fig. 1), 1638. Engraving. 312 × 203 mm. London, British Museum, 1841,0809.55. The engraved title reads IMP. NERO CAESAR AUGUSTUS. Marjon van der Meulen, Rubens Copies after the Antique (London, 1994), vol. 2, cat. 114, pp. 128–29. For the series, see idem, vol. 1, pp. 142–52, and vol. 2, cats. 108–19a, pp. 115–42, repr. vol. 3, figs. 188–229. Four printmakers engraved the plates, probably over a period of several years. Nine plates, including the one after the Harvard drawing, are dated 1638. The uniformly lettered titles, probably added immediately prior to publication, lend to the group the look of a series, but the group was published without a title page.

2 Van der Meuelen, vol. 1, pp. 145 and 50. Konrad Renger, “Rubens dedit dedicavitque: Rubens’ Beschäftigung mit der Reproduktionsgrafik. I. Teil: Der Kupferstich,” Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, vol. 16 (1974): 122–75. The series includes six Greeks—philosophers, authors, and a physician—who mingle with Roman generals, politicians, an emperor, and a poet. The availability of identifiable originals presumably accounts for the random group of notables represented.

3 The bust of Nero probably belonged to Rubens, who would have acquired it in the 1618 exchange of artworks with Sir Dudley Carleton, the British ambassador in the Hague. Another version of the head was in an Antwerp collection by 1617. Jeffrey Muller, Rubens: the Artist as Collector (Princeton, New Jersey, 1989), under catalogue 3, object 8, p. 152; Van der Meulen, vol. 1, pp. 142–43 and 150, vol. 2, under cat. 114, p. 129. According to Van der Meulen (vol. 1, p. 150), the type was rightly identified as Nero, but the object was probably a Renaissance forgery.

4 The model for the engraving of Brutus is in Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum, 5461; Van der Meulen, vol. 2, cat. 108a, p. 118, repr. vol. 3, fig. 188.

5 Jakob Rosenberg questioned the attribution to Rubens of the Harvard Nero and the Seneca in the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (see n. 9); Jakob Rosenberg, “Review: Rubens’ Oil Sketches and Drawings in the Fogg Museum,” Art Quarterly, vol. 19 (Summer 1956): 138–43, p. 142. In the same year, Julius Held first suggested that the pen work could be by an assistant and the chalk sketch by Rubens; Julius S. Held, “[Review] Drawings and Oil Sketches by Rubens from American Collections,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 98, no. 637 (April 1956): 122–25, p. 123. Anne-Marie Logan endorsed Held’s conclusion, based in part on the examination of the Harvard drawing under infrared light carried out in 1985 by Marjorie Cohn; Anne-Marie Logan, “[Review] Prints after Rubens,” Print Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 1 (1988): 78–81, p. 80.

6 Video Spectral Comparator 5000 infrared image (823 nm) of 1932.360 (Fig. 2). In 1985 Marjorie Cohn, then conservator of works of art on paper at the Harvard Art Museums, studied the drawing with infrared light and concluded that the chalk sketch was by Rubens, but the pen work was inferior and by another hand; Egbert Haverkamp‑Begemann, Mary Tavener Holmes, Fritz Koreny, Donald Posner, and Duncan Robinson, The Robert Lehman Collection VII: Fifteenth‑ to Eighteenth‑Century European Drawings (New York and Princeton, New Jersey, 1999), under cat. 37, pp. 157–58, and p. 159 (n. 19). The infrared image produced by Cohn was published by Van der Meulen (vol. 2, p. 130 and fig. 209), who attributed both states of the drawing to Rubens. Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann (p. 158) also tentatively accepted the pen work of the Harvard work and the Lehman Seneca as by Rubens. Thanks to advances in imaging technology, the recently produced infrared image reproduced in Figure 2 more clearly distinguishes the underdrawing from the pen work. It also reveals the vigor and, more importantly, the extent of the chalk sketch, which would have provided a thorough basis for the assistant who worked it up in brown ink. My thanks to Penley Knipe for producing the infrared image and interpreting the results of our examination of the work with infrared light.

7 All of the ink behaves similarly under varying wavelengths of infrared light. This indicates that the drawing is done in one ink and is evidence that one artist did the ink work.

8 Logan, p. 80.

9 The model for Bust of Seneca is in New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.1.843; Haverkamp-Begemann et al., cat. 37, pp. 154–59; and Van der Meulen, vol. 2, cat. 117a, pp. 138–39, repr. vol. 3, fig. 224. The drawings of Nero and Seneca shared a common provenance from (at the latest) the second quarter of the eighteenth century, when they belonged to Crozat, until 1910, when they were separated at the sale of the Henri Duval collection. For the provenance and Mariette’s remark on the drawings, see Pierre Jean Mariette, ed. Philippe de Chennevières, Anatole de Montaiglon, Abecedario de P. J. Mariette, et autres notes inédites de cet amateur sur les arts et les artistes (Paris, 1851–60), vol. 5, p. 118; Van der Meulen, vol. 2, under cat. 114a, p. 130; Haverkamp-Begemann et al., under cat. 37, pp. 156–59.

10 These three lines are more clearly visible in the infrared image of the drawing published by Van der Meulen, vol. 3, fig. 209.

11 The proof impression retouched by Rubens is in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, C10.517; Renger, p. 167; Van der Meulen, vol. 2, cat. 114b, pp. 130–31, repr. vol. 3, fig. 210.


Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Charles A. Loeser
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art

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Publication History

  • H. M. Zijlstra-Zweens, "Antieke Karakterkoppen van Rubens", Hermeneus (May-June 1977), vol. 49, no. 3, pp. 202-206, pp. 203 and 205, repr. p. 204, fig. 1
  • Pierre-Jean Mariette, Abécédario de P. J. Mariette et autres notes inédites de cet amateur sur les arts et les artistes, ed. Charles-Phillippe, Marquis de Chennevières-Pointel and Anatole de Montaiglon, J.-B. Dumoulin (Paris, 1851 -1860), vol. 5, p. 118
  • Max Rooses, L’Oeuvre de P. P. Rubens, Jos. Maes (Antwerp, 1886-1892), vol. 5, under cat. no. 1219, p. 15
  • Agnes Mongan and Paul J. Sachs, Drawings in the Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, 1940), vol. 1, cat. no. 485, pp. 251-2, repr. vol. 2, fig. 251
  • Jan-Albert Goris and Julius S. Held, Rubens in America, Pantheon Books (New York and Antwerp, 1947), cat. no. 112 and under cat. no. 111, p. 43
  • An Exhibition of Dutch and Flemish Drawings and Watercolors, checklist, Unpublished (1954), cat. no. 18, p. 4
  • Julius S. Held, "[Review] Drawings and Oil Sketches by Rubens from American Collections", Burlington Magazine (April 1956), vol. 98, no. 637, pp. 122-25, p. 123
  • Jakob Rosenberg, "Review: Rubens' Oil Sketches and Drawings in the Fogg Museum", Art Quarterly (Summer 1956), vol. 19, pp. 138-43, p. 142
  • Agnes Mongan, Drawings & Oil Sketches: Rubens from American Collections, exh. cat., President and Fellows of Harvard College (Cambridge, MA, 1956), cat. no. 27, p. 26, repr. pl. XVII
  • Dr. Ludwig Burchard and Roger A. d'Hulst, Tekeningen van P.P. Rubens, exh. cat., Uitgeverij Ontwikkeling (Antwerp, 1956), cat. no. 130, pp. 106-107, repr. pl. LX
  • Victor H. Miesel, Rubens' Study Drawings After Ancient Sculpture, Gazette des Beaux-Arts (Paris, May-June 1963), 6th series, vol. 1, pp. 311-326, p. 313
  • Highlights from the Collections of the Fogg Museum and Harvard Alumni of St. Louis, exh. cat., City Art Museum of St. Louis (St. Louis, 1964), cat. no. 21, n.p., repr.
  • Wolfgang Stechow, Rubens and the Classical Tradition, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 1968), p. 36, repr. fig. 22
  • Mrs. Colles Baxter Larkin, "Rubens: A Variety of Interests" (unpublished manuscript, Fogg Art Museum, 1974). Typewritten brochure that accompanied the exhibition of the same title at the Fogg Art Museum, 23 May - 30 June 1974., no. 21, n.p.
  • Konrad Renger, “Rubens dedit dedicavitque. Rubens’ Beschäftigung mit der Reproduktionsgrafik. I. Teil: Der Kupferstich", Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen (1974), vol. 16, pp. 122-75, pp. 165-67, repr. p. 166, fig. 25
  • Rubens and Humanism, exh. cat., Birmingham Museum of Art (Birmingham, AL, 1978), cat. no. 50, pp. 24 and 59, repr. p. 24
  • Arlette Sérullaz, Rubens, ses Maîtres, ses Elèves. Dessins du Musée du Louvre, exh. cat., Musée du Louvre (Paris, 1978), under cat. no. 50, p. 59
  • Ingeborg Pohlen, Untersuchungen zur Reproduktionsgraphik der Rubenswerkstatt, R. A. Klein (Munich, 1985), no. 27, p. 279
  • "Facing the Past", Harvard Gazette (30 January 1987), p. 12, repr. p. 12
  • Anne-Marie Logan, "[Review] Prints after Rubens", Print Quarterly (1988), vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 78-81, p. 80
  • Marjon van der Meulen, Rubens Copies after the Antique, Harvey Miller Publishers (London, 1994), vol. 1, pp. 146 and 271, vol. 2, cat. no. 114a, pp. 129–30, under cat. no. 114b, p. 131, and under cat. no. 117a, p. 139, repr. vol. 3, fig. 208
  • Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, Mary Tavener Holmes, Fritz Koreny, Donald Posner, and Duncan Robinson, The Robert Lehman Collection VII: Fifteenth- to Eighteenth-Century European Drawings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Princeton University Press (New York and Princeton, 1999), under cat. no. 37, pp. 156-59 (n. 11 and 19)
  • Carlo Francini, "L'inventario della collezione Loeser alla Villa Gattaia", Bollettino della Società di Studi Fiorentini (2000), no. 6, p. 122 ("Cartella C.L."), no. 5
  • Klaus Albrecht Schröder, ed., Peter Paul Rubens, exh. cat., Albertina (Vienna, 2004), pp. 111 and 117 (n. 113)
  • Anne-Marie Logan and Michiel C. Plomp, Peter Paul Rubens: The Drawings, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art / Yale University Press (New York/New Haven and London, 2004), pp. 55 and 59 (n. 115)
  • British Museum collections website, website, 2009, under catalogue entry for Pontius/Rubens, "Twelve Famous Greek and Roman Men / Imp. Nero Caesar Augustus", reg. no. 1841,0809.55
  • Colleen Walsh, Drawing Power: Harvard Art Museums exhibit a showcase for masterworks in progress, Harvard Gazette ([online], May 19, 2016),, accessed May 23, 2016
  • William W. Robinson and Susan Anderson, Drawings from the Age of Bruegel, Rubens, and Rembrandt: Highlights from the Collection of the Harvard Art Museums, Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2016), cat. no. 77, pp. 260-262, repr. p. 261 and p. 262 as fig. 2 (IR image) and fig. 3 (IR detail)

Exhibition History

  • An Exhibition of Dutch and Flemish Drawings and Watercolors, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/01/1954 - 04/30/1954
  • Drawings & Oil Sketches by P. P. Rubens from American Collections, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 01/14/1956 - 02/29/1956; The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 03/20/1956 - 04/28/1956
  • Tekeningen van P.P. Rubens, Rubenshuis, 06/16/1956 - 09/02/1956
  • The Drawing, Pomona College Gallery, 09/22/1960 - 10/16/1960
  • Highlights from the Collection of the Fogg Art Museum and Harvard Alumni of St. Louis, City Art Museum of St. Louis, St. Louis, 01/30/1964 - 03/01/1964
  • Rubens: A Variety of Interests, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 05/23/1974 - 06/30/1974
  • Rubens and Humanism, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, 04/15/1978 - 05/28/1978
  • Calming the Tempest with Peter Paul Rubens, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 12/22/2001 - 03/17/2002
  • Around Antique: Prints, Drawings, and Photographs (Teaching Gallery) S421, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 05/14/2010 - 09/04/2010
  • Drawings from the Age of Bruegel, Rubens, and Rembrandt, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 05/21/2016 - 08/14/2016

Subjects and Contexts

  • Dutch, Flemish, & Netherlandish Drawings

Related Works

Verification Level

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