The long-anticipated exhibition Early Rubens is finally here.

All the drama and intensity in the works of Peter Paul Rubens’s early career is now on view on Level 2 in the Sam and Ayala Zacks Pavilion at the AGO. Featuring ambient mood lighting, spectacularly coloured walls and spot-lit masterpieces including canvases stretching well over three metres, visitors are already raving.

Head of Medusa, c. 1614, by Peter Paul Rubens. (Moravian Gallery, Brno, Czech Republic)

Famous at a young age, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) remains one of the most renowned painters in Western art history. Featuring over 30 large-scale paintings – including several never before shown in North America – and about 20 works on paper, Early Rubens is an ambitious and revealing exhibition of works the Flemish painter produced between 1609 to 1621.

Samson and Delilah, c. 1609, by Peter Paul Rubens. (Cincinnati Art Museum)

This period, when Antwerp experienced a pause in a violent war, aligns with Rubens’s return to Antwerp and his rise to prominence on the world stage. Opening at the AGO on Oct. 12, 2019, Early Rubens is organized in partnership with the Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco (FAMSF) and is curated by Dr. Sasha Suda, the AGO’s Curator of European Art, and Dr. Kirk Nickel, Assistant Curator of European Painting, FAMSF. The exhibition runs in Toronto to Jan. 5, 2020.


The Annunciation, c. 1609, by Peter Paul Rubens. (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)

Rubens’s virtuosic artworks confront the viewer with their bold approach to storytelling. His dramatic flair is matched only by the ambition and scale of the works. On loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Daniel and the Lions’ Den (1614/1615), is a harrowing painting over 7-feet wide, which situates viewers inside the den alongside an anguished Daniel and 10 near-to-life-size lions. With similar immediacy and attention to detail but on an even grander scale, Rubens invites visitors to join a circle of hunters attacking their prey in The Boar Hunt, c.1615-17, on loan from the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille.

The Massacre of the Innocents, c.1610, by Peter Paul Rubens.(The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario)

Featuring loans from museums across Europe and North America including The Met, LACMA, the Rijksmuseum, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the British Museum, and the Getty Museum, the exhibition includes paintings on panel and canvas, prints and drawings.

The Tribute Money, c.1612, by Peter Paul Rubens.( Fine Arts Museums of SanFrancisco)

The exhibition provides important context for two works from the AGO Collection: The Massacre of the Innocents from 1610 and Rubens’s largest and most realized oil sketch The Raising of the Cross, from 1638. Measuring 4.5 feet by 6 feet, The Massacre distils the depth of the artist’s learning in Italy, and underscores his devotion to confronting his viewer with brutal truths.


The Flight of Lot and his Family from Sodom, c.1613-1615, by Peter Paul Rubens.(Florida State University)

Early Rubens is the story of a painter and his city, of how Rubens’s return to his chosen home at a particular moment in history sparked in Antwerp an artistic, intellectual, and commercial revitalization,” says Dr. Sasha Suda, AGO Curator of European Art. “The Massacre of the Innocents is a centerpiece of the AGO Collection and this exhibition. The Massacre of the Innocents not only highlights Rubens’s achievement as a painter, it provides powerful insight into the mindset of the citizens of Antwerp in 1610, giving expression to their collective trauma. I’m excited for our visitors to see it in a new way, and to understand the incredibly important place it holds in Rubens’s development.”

Daniel in the Lions’ Den, c.1614-1616, by Peter Paul Rubens.(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

“What distinguished Rubens and made his pictures so thrilling for his early viewers, was his ability to re-interpret important models he encountered both on the Italian peninsula and in the Low Countries through his own developing sense for vibrant, naturalistic color and his virtuoso brushwork,” says Dr. Kirk Nickel, assistant curator of European painting at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “His inclination to work quickly and at a large scale were essential for Rubens’s success in repopulating the city’s churches with religious images, even while he painted startling episodes of ancient valor, obscure Greco-Roman mythologies, and unsettling moments of biblical history for private collectors.”

The period of 1609 to 1621 was significant both for Rubens’s development as an artist and for Antwerp’s revitalization. In 1608, Rubens returned to Antwerp after studying in Italy for eight years. His return coincided with the beginning of the Twelve Years’ Truce, a period of relative peacefulness for war-ravaged Antwerp. Rubens’s homecoming was marked by almost immediate professional success. Appointed court painter to the Archduke of Austria, in less than two years, he built an active studio employing numerous students and artisans, married, undertook several high profile public commissions and established himself as the most famous painter in Western Europe. A diplomat, a teacher and a civic leader, Rubens’s legacy extends far beyond his brush. In 1621, the Twelve Years’ Truce evaporated and the 80-year war between Holland and Spain resumed.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated 280-page hardcover catalogue, edited by Dr. Sasha Suda and Dr. Kirk Nickel, and co-published by the Art Gallery of Ontario and DelMonico Books. Featuring essays by Koen Bulckens, Dr. Corrinne Chong, Early Rubens will be available in shopAGO in April 2019.

A highlight of the Fall 2019 public programming season, the AGO has commissioned Toronto musician and composer Owen Pallett to create a suite of Rubens-inspired musical performances to complement the exhibition. Stay tuned for more details.


Located in Toronto, Canada’s largest city of 5.9 million, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is one of the largest art museums in North America. The AGO’s collection of close to 95,000 works ranges from cutting-edge contemporary art such as Untilled by Pierre Huyghe to European masterpieces such as Peter Paul Rubens’s The Massacre of The Innocents; from the vast collection by the Group of Seven to works by established and emerging Indigenous and Canadian artists; with a photography collection that tracks the impact of the medium with deep holdings of works by artists such as Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus; and with focused collections in Gothic boxwood miniatures and Western and Central African art. Drawing on this collection—as well as collaborations with museums around the world—the AGO presents wide-ranging exhibitions and programs, taking special care to showcase diverse and underrepresented artists. A major expansion designed by Frank Gehry in 2008 with lead support from the family of Ken Thomson makes the AGO a highly-photographed architectural landmark. Visit and follow @AGOToronto to learn more.

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