Sketches of the grand illusionist and master storyteller Peter Paul Rubens grace the Berkeley Art Museum.

Every so often, a major art show comes along that locals would be foolish to miss. Last month, for instance, New Yorkers flocked to Central Park to witness The Gates, a huge installation by Christo and his collaborator, Jeanne-Claude. Opening this week at the Berkeley Art Museum is an exhibit of works by an equally monumental public artist of another era, Peter Paul Rubens. A comparison of the artists might seem far-fetched; The Gates, like all of Christo's work, is famously ephemeral and temporary, while the 17th-century master painter produced large-scale narrative art that was meant to last -- and has -- for centuries. Yet, like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Rubens created art flamboyantly calculated to impress.

Rubens (1577-1640) was the most famous and successful artist in Northern Europe in his day and is considered one of the greatest painters in Western art history. Nineteenth-century painter Eugène Delacroix called him "the Homer of painting." A brilliant man of diverse talents, Rubens was a scholar fluent in several languages, a savvy businessman, and even a foreign diplomat.

As a young man, Rubens studied painting in Venice and later stayed in Mantua as a guest of its ruler. When he resettled in Antwerp at the age of 31, he was a mature artist and quickly found a ready clientele. This move occurred at the height of the Counter-Reformation, and Antwerp was one of its most active battlegrounds. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church hired him to paint pictures that would decorate the interiors of reconstructed churches and reflect orthodox doctrine and theology. But over the next thirty years, Rubens also painted similarly monumental works for such influential individuals as Marie de Medici, the Archduchess Isabella of the Spanish Netherlands, King Philip IV of Spain, and James I of England. Much of this work, while privately commissioned, appeared in palaces and other contexts where the public could view it.

To keep up with the demands of his glittering clientele, Rubens ran a busy workshop where, like Christo, he employed assistants to execute his commissions in his style. As part of the process, Rubens would rough out his ideas in oil sketches, or models, for his assistants to copy.

The exhibit on display at the Berkeley Art Museum includes many such oil sketches, borrowed from collections in the United States and Europe, most drawn in color with a brush on wooden boards. Some of the sketches are preliminary or unfinished; others are fully developed compositions that probably needed little or no reworking before serving as models for engravings or large canvases. Together, they illustrate both the artist's dynamic Baroque style and his technical genius as a painter and storyteller. Even those unfamiliar with Rubens' work may be familiar with the term "Rubenesque," which derives from the sensual physicality of his style -- particularly his treatment of nudes.

Shortly after returning to Antwerp, Rubens received a commission to provide 39 ceiling paintings for the city's new Jesuit church. The Berkeley exhibit includes a couple of oil sketches for this series, and his rendering of The Last Supper (1620-21) is one of the show's most stunning works. Unlike the famous painting by Leonardo, Rubens offers the unusual perspective of looking up at the table from nearby. The viewer peers up some steps (painted in the foreground) toward the flowing robes and half-revealed faces of Jesus and his disciples. A central chandelier sheds light on the scene and accentuates Jesus' hand in the act of offering the Blessed Sacrament. In the Antwerp church, this image would have created an illusion of space extending beyond the ceiling, a metaphor perhaps for the Church's reach. Such pictures were meant to inspire awe, giving often-illiterate viewers a dramatic experience on the order of a big-screen epic.

Rubens' greatest works told stories, and many of these small oil sketches display his narrative skills. The artist used character development and narrative suspense to engage his viewers. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Berkeley museum's own contribution to the exhibit, The Road to Calvary (ca. 1632), a detailed model for an engraving, painted in a subtle gray-and-brown palette. Jesus, bent under the weight of the cross, struggles up the hill of Calvary. The eye follows the diagonal sweep of the cross, over the strained muscles of the men who are trying to right it, across the sharp lines of soldiers' helmets and spears, and finally descends again to rest on Jesus' face. A woman (Veronica) wipes Jesus' brow, as he alone looks out to meet the viewer's eye.

As an artist working on commission, Rubens expressed his versatility, painting Catholic themes for Catholics and pagan ones for those royal patrons who commissioned them. For King Philip IV's hunting lodge, he created a series of scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses. The brightly colored oil sketch, Aurora and Cephalus (1636), shows the goddess of dawn neglecting her morning duty. The golden-haired goddess descends from her chariot in the sky and reaches out to her lover, the mortal Cephalus, who is lying languorously at the edge of a wood. The chariot's white horses rear up, snorting pale smoke against the pearly dawn, while a black cloud billows at her feet, suggesting that the love-obsessed goddess is threatening the world with imminent darkness.

The museum has billed this show as a chance to appreciate Rubens on an intimate scale, but he was not an intimate painter. Viewers seeking the quiet, compelling power of, say, a portrait by Rembrandt will find it mostly lacking here. Only two sketches come close. One of them, Sketch for a Portrait of a Family (ca. 1632), strikes a gentle, autobiographical note. At 53, some years after the death of his first wife, the artist married the sixteen-year-old Hélène Fourment. In this quick oil sketch, he paints himself, along with his young wife and two children.

Mostly, however, Rubens was not a subtle artist. He relished working with heroic themes on a grand scale. His power as a storyteller comes through in these small oil sketches, and it's this power that still engages us today.


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