Peter Paul Rubens: The Three Graces

The Three Graces: Peter Paul Rubens

The Three Graces is a 1635 mythological painting by Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens.

The Three Graces or, in Greek, Charites were goddesses of beauty and creativity and are often referred to and depicted in classical art. Here Rubens paints his typically Amazonian figures’ nudes with arms linked in a dance in a grotto that opens out onto an expansive and fertile landscape.

Above is a garland of flowers and to the side a fountain which together symbolizes plenty, with the dance of the goddesses providing good fortune. The painting remained in the possession of the artist until his death. This is a Baroque vision of a Grecian theme. Rubens returned to it in several iterations, but the version presently at the Prado is the most significant.

In the ancient Greek model, we are presented with the goddesses Aglaea, representing radiance, Euphrosyne, representing mirth, and Thalia, the goddess of festivity. According to myth, the three of them are sisters, daughters of Zeus, and known collectively (in Latin) as Gratiae or (in Greek) as Charites.

In the most ancient sources, they appeared clothed, but a long tradition of moralistic and spiritualistic re-imaginings has almost invariably seen them as naked, sometimes with the implication that the values they represent are meant to be transparently given. Clearly, Rubens has furthered this tradition.

His Graces appear to hold one another by the arms so as to form a circle — another custom of their representations. The slight veil that appears to wrap vaguely around some of their arms and legs serves only the function of linking the three figures further together.

They are standing, possibly dancing, on an Edenic turf on the edge of a forest while fertile fields roll away to the horizon and water pours from a nearby fountain. The sprout of the fountain in the shape of a cornucopia, just like the garland of roses strung between it and a tree branch, tells us of the richness of the gifts of nature. The arch from the tree trunk to the base of the fountain is thus a continuous curve that neatly encloses the three subjects in its midst as if it were a portal.

It is interesting — and to a contemporary viewer possibly unavoidable — to note that the Graces envisioned by Rubens bear a physique that has little of the maidenly lightness of most other representations (see the great precedent in Botticelli’s Primavera). Their flesh appears abundant, muscly in parts, and with the signs of cellulite all over. It was a choice of Rubens’ to make use of real-life models, but also to represent contemporary people, not goddesses or nymphs, even when the subject matter supposedly called for them.

The radiance, joy, and merrymaking spirit of his Graces is nonetheless for them being actual, living women rather than idealized spirits.

Rubens’ Three Graces was not sold during the artist’s lifetime. It was purchased only in 1666, by king Philip IV of Spain, through whom they reached the Museo del Prado, where they presently hang.

Peter Paul Rubens’s The Three Graces is now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain

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