A large nude study, which acted as a model for one of Ruben's largest altar work commissions, will be auctioned off at Sotheby's Old Masters Drawings sale in New York on 30 January. The drawing, which has belonged to the Dutch royal family since the 1830s, is comparable to only a handful of works by Rubens that have been auctioned since the mid-1900s.

The work, Nude Study of a Young Man with Raised Arms, depicts a muscular young man trying to lift a heavy weight over his head. It was one of the figurative studies that Rubens made for his altar work painting The Raising of the Cross, which was painted for the Saint Walburga Church in Antwerp in 1608.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, ‘The Raising of the Cross’ in the Cathedral of our Lady in Antwerp. Photo: Smarthistory Sir Peter Paul Rubens, ‘The Raising of the Cross’ in the Cathedral of our Lady in Antwerp. Photo: Smarthistory

The drawing has an outstanding provenance, beginning with the 18th-century artist (and Rubens collector) Jacob de Wit. Then it was owned by the the British artist and collector, and leader of the Royal Academy, Sir Thomas Lawrence. In the 1830s, it was purchased by King William II of the Netherlands and was hung with masterpieces by Raphael, Michelangelo, da Vinci and Rembrandt in one of the greatest art collections of the time. It has remained in the possession of the Dutch royal family since that acquisition.

Drawn with outstanding clarity and masterful technique, the work also illustrates the artist's creative method. The large figure is drawn all the way to the edges of the sheet, and despite the cut-off of the hands in the corners, the figure seems to be in accurate dimensions. Figure studies from this time in Ruben's career were often drawn with such energy and vision that he ran out of space and it wasn't unusual for a subject's hand or foot to be missing in the edges of the sheets, which would be completed in a separate study.

Despite the clear conviction of the character's outline, one can imagine that Rubens was still working out his exact positioning when he finished the drawing. The left leg of the figure was initially drawn slightly more curved and further forward than in the final painted version where the left leg is positioned closer to the right.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, ‘The Raising of the Cross’. Photo: Smarthistory Sir Peter Paul Rubens, ‘The Raising of the Cross’. Photo: Smarthistory

In The Raising of the Cross, the figure based on this drawing is a soldier wearing armour. Rubens learned the method of making a nude study as a preliminary study for a painted version during his stay in Italy, a time that changed his artistry at almost every level. When Rubens was in Italy he was inspired by the Renaissance masters Michelangelo, Raphael, Correggio, Mantegna and Titian. In the drawing in question, the influences from Michelangelo are obvious, as well as the Baroque style of Carracci with whom Rubens both lived and worked with during his stay in Rome.

The drawing, which is estimated between US$2.5 million to 3.5 million (£2-2.8 mil), will be offered by for sale at Sotheby's Old Masters Drawings auction on 30 January at 10am.

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