Something pretty special is happening at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC right now. For the first time in more than 130 years three paintings of the Magi, or the wise men, by Peter Paul Rubens are reunited for the public. These paintings remained together in the city of Antwerp until around 1876, after which they made their way to Paris where they were sold separately in 1881. They now reside in three different museums: the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Museo de Arte de Ponce near San Juan, Puerto Rico. The National Gallery’s painting was given to the Gallery in 1943 as part of the Chester Dale Collection and it was stipulated that it cannot travel by the bequest. That means, who knows when the Magi will be reunited again!
However, it’s not just the once-in-a-lifetime-ness of the exhibition that makes it noteworthy in my mind, it’s the story of the art itself. (Before you think I’m some art history bad ass, the National Gallery passed this awesome info onto me.) This is also about the relationship between the artist and Balthasar Moretus the Elder, head of Plantin Press, the largest publishing house in 16th and 17th century Europe.
Balthasar, a close childhood friend of Rubens, commissioned the paintings around 1618. Balthasar and his two brothers were named after the Three Magi (Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar), so these paintings had a special personal meaning for both the artist and the patron. Earl Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art says, “At the time, the Adoration of the Magi was a common subject in art, but these intimate paintings take the kings out of their usual narrative setting. Rubens conjured them as tangible flesh and blood believers.”
Peter Paul Rubens: The Three Magi Reunited is in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC until July 5, 2015. http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2015/rubens-the-three-magi.html