Achilles Educated by the Centaur Chiron

Peter Paul Rubens1630 - 1635

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
Rotterdam, Netherlands

The centaur Chiron raised Achilles at the request of Achilles' mother. This centaur, half man, half horse, was, in classical mythology, a famous teacher to various heroes and gods. Attributes in the oil sketch, such as lyre, arrow and hunting horns, refer to his lessons in music and poetry and hunting. He also gave lessons in horse-riding and medicine, which is symbolised by the god Aesculapius, who is depicted on the left as a hermit. This is the second in a series of eight oil sketches by Rubens, based on the life of the Greek hero Achilles. Rubens designed four series of tapestries, and all four were executed. That was an expensive and time-consuming procedure in which oil sketches like these were just the first step. They were followed by larger painted models, which preceded full-size cartoons for the weaver which were ten times the size of the initial sketches and were typically painted by assistants. It is hard to imagine that a project of that kind could be undertaken without a patron, but in three of the four cases we do not know who this was. The last series was made around 1630, and all eight of sketches have survived. Seven are in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. They chronicle the life of the Greek hero Achilles from his baptism in the Stynx, one of the legendary rivers of the underworld. That baptism would have made him immortal if his mother had not held him by the heel while immersing him. That proverbial unprotected Achilles' heel proved fatal, as can be seen in the eighth and last panel.


  • Title: Achilles Educated by the Centaur Chiron
  • Creator Lifespan: 1577 - 1640
  • Creator Nationality: Flemish
  • Creator Gender: Male
  • Creator Death Place: Antwerp, Belgium
  • Creator Birth Place: Siegen, Germany
  • Date Created: 1630 - 1635
  • Physical Dimensions: w385 x h440 cm (Without frame)
  • Painter: Peter Paul Rubens
  • Original Title: De centaur Chiron onderricht de jeugdige Achilles
  • More Info: Link - Read more about Peter Paul Rubens - Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen - http://collectie.boijmans.nl/en/disclaimer/
  • Artist Information: The Antwerp painter Peter Paul Rubens was appointed court artist to the Duke of Mantua in Italy at a young age. In 1603 he travelled to Madrid, where he was able to see the paintings of Titian and Raphael in the Spanish court. He subsequently travelled between 1604 and 1608 to Mantua, Rome, Genoa and Milan. He mainly studied the painters Titian and Michelangelo, and was very impressed by the work of Caravaggio, from whom he purchased a canvas. After returning to Antwerp, he worked until his death as court artist to the Spanish regents of the Netherlands. He built a house in Antwerp based on Italian villas, and started a flourishing studio. Countless artists, including such celebrities as Anthonie van Dijck and Jacob Jordaens, were trained in his studio. Rubens left much work to his assistants, but carefully oversaw everything. He was one of the most influential painters of his time and the greatest exponent of the Baroque in the north.
  • Additional Artwork Information: In 1621, Peter Paul Rubens received a visit from a Danish doctor, Otto Sperling, at his home in Antwerp. Sperling was impressed by the house—he described it as a palace—but even more so by the artist’s ability to attend to several things at the same time. When he arrived, Rubens was busy painting while also dictating a letter. More than that, he was listening to a reading from the work of the ancient Roman historian Tacitus. Sperling was reluctant to disturb Rubens, but his host engaged him in conversation while continuing his other activities. Later, Rubens showed him the studio where his many pupils were working on his designs. Rubens’ prodigious energy and well-organized workshop enabled him to produce hundreds of paintings, many of them on immense canvases. He was arguably the most highly acclaimed artist of his time, with a prestigious clientele that included the crowned heads of France, Spain and England. His reputation spread even more rapidly once his work became available in engravings. Prints of his compositions were sold throughout Europe. The museum has a large collection of them, including engravings by Schelte à Bolswert, Pieter Soutman and Lucas Vorsterman. Boijmans Van Beuningen is best known, however, for its collection of drawings and, even more importantly, its oil studies by Rubens. Rubens was a zealous draughtsman. He made small ink sketches, which he called ‘scribbles’, as a means of exploring new ideas. He also drew studies in chalk for portraits and poses to be used later in his paintings. His sensitive handling of the medium is evident from this beautiful drawing, in red, black and white, of a woman with folded arms. Rubens generally made oil sketches on panel in preparation for his paintings, and from them we see the brilliance of his technique. His complex, intricate compositions seem almost effortless. These studies subsequently served as a basis for the large, finished paintings Rubens produced with the help of his assistants. The amount of work that went into them varied significantly. The Coronation of the Virgin, for example, which was made as a sketch for a large ceiling piece in the Saint Charles Borromeo Church in Antwerp, consists of no more than a few strokes of brown and white paint. It is quite different from, say, the colourful and relatively worked-up study for The Martyrdom of Saint Livinus, a painting executed for an altarpiece in a church in Ghent. The pride of the collection is a series of seven sketches illustrating the life of the Greek hero Achilles. These served as designs for tapestries, so the scenes are reversed in order to appear the right way round in the tapestries. This explains why one of the drawings shows Achilles holding his sword in his left hand. The figure would be reversed in the tapestry and he would appear right-handed. Yet, for all his brilliance, even Rubens was fallible, as we see from the first and last panels of the Achilles series. The first shows Thetis dipping her son Achilles in the river of the underworld to render him immortal. Only the heel by which she held him remained vulnerable. In the last painting Achilles is wounded in precisely that spot—except that the arrow is in his right heel, whereas in the first study his mother holds him by his left foot.
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Donated by D.G. van Beuningen 1933, http://collectie.boijmans.nl/en/disclaimer/
  • External Link: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
  • Medium: Oil on panel

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