RKD Netherland Institute for art History
Over the past two years, the Rubenianum/Research institute for Flemish art of the 16th and 17th centuries and the KBR (Royal Library of Belgium) have worked on a selection of seventeenth-century drawings in Flanders which deserve the term ‘topstuk’ (masterpiece). Their project was commissioned by the Vlaamse Topstukkenraad (Flemish Masterpieces Panel). Most are sheets from museum collections and archives, but some come from private collections. Although their official recognition as masterpieces by the Flemish government is yet to be granted, 109 drawings worthy of being masterpieces have already been added to the RKDimages database. The Rubenianum is contributing to the database as part of a long-standing collaboration with the RKD.
This project is being carried out as part of the Vlaamse Topstukkendecreet project from 2003, which protects for the future cultural objects with a special archaeological, historical, cultural-historical, artistic or scientific significance. Works which appear on the List of Flemish Masterpieces qualify for financial support for conservation and restoration and they cannot leave Flanders without an export license. The project was led from the KBR by drawings expert Sarah van Ooteghem. She went all over Flanders with two colleagues from the Rubenianum to study drawings in various collections.
The drawings that have now been entered into RKDimages include both single sheets and sets of drawings and albums. The great Baroque masters Rubens, Jordaens and Van Dyck are of course represented, but so are dozens of other masters, both from Flanders and outside, including Jan I Brueghel, Abraham van Diepenbeeck, Erasmus II Quellinus and Cornelis Bega.
The production of art in Flanders reached its absolute zenith in the seventeenth century, both in terms of quality and quantity. Yet drawings from the period have in general often been disclosed and studied less. The Masterpieces project led to some interesting finds, including the discovery of a previously unknown sheet which is now attributed to the engraver Lucas Vorsterman (1595/96-1674/75) and forms the link between Rubens’s lost portrait of Isabella d’Este after Titian and the engraving after the painting. Another of the highlights is a group of three Roman sketchbooks by Pieter Verbruggen II (1648-1691), member of the celebrated family of Antwerp sculptors, which was long thought to be lost. These sketchbooks were purchased by the Flemish government in 2018 and placed on long-term loan to the Museum Plantin-Moretus, where they play an important role in an impressive collection of drawings by Flemish sculptors.
In 2019 Sarah Van Ooteghem started work on a new project based in the Rubenianum, again carrying out a commission for the Topstukkenraad: she is compiling a list of sixteenth-century drawings in Flemish collections which deserve special protection. These drawings will also shortly become available through RKDimages.