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A 16th-century landscape extensively reworked by Peter Paul Rubens will go under the hammer at Sotheby’s London next month (3 July). Research carried out by the auction house shows that the Flemish Old Master changed parts of The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist in an Extensive Landscape with Travellers by the Dutch artist Herri Met de Bles. The painting, estimated at £600,000-£800,000, is jointly attributed to both Rubens and De Bles.

Infrared photography and X-rays have revealed that Rubens reworked the positions of both the baby Jesus and John the Baptist, and also embellished the folds of the drapery around the Virgin Mary (the main group of figures in De Bles’s work are thought to have been executed by an anonymous specialist figure painter at workshop).

“We did an X-ray,” George Gordon, co-chairman of worldwide Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s, told theObserver. “But it was the infrared image that was really helpful in showing us the underdrawing of the figures. It is so interesting to work out what he did. It completes a jigsaw puzzle.”

He adds: “Rubens was fascinated by the art of the past and saw himself as continuing a tradition. In his own work he drew on earlier masters and then completely transformed these sources into his own manner.”

The art historian Bendor Grosvenor, who is also a contributor to The Art Newspaper, says that it is unusual to see a joint attribution at auction, mainly because it is hard to be sure—hundreds of years after the event—where one artist stops and another starts. “In this case, however, Sotheby’s has been able to conclusively demonstrate where and how Rubens developed the underlying artwork,” he says. The work was consigned in March last year to the Artcurial auction house in Basel, when it was catalogued under “Herri met de Bles and follower of Lambert Lombard”. It sold for CHF247,388 (£220,000).

In a 2019 article published in the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, the art historian E. Melanie Gifford writes: “It is well known that Rubens often reworked paintings by his students and associates, and he also retouched works in his collection by other artists, bringing an imaginative and expressive perspective that often refocused those paintings and drawings.”

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