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Overview

Peter Paul Rubens painted this compelling image of one of the three Magi around 1618 for his childhood friend Balthasar Moretus the Elder (1574–1641), owner of the prestigious Plantin Press in Antwerp. Traditionally identified as Melchior, the Assyrian king, this profile image of a middle-aged man with a full beard is not shown as an exotic king from a distant past but as a tangible flesh and blood figure with a powerful three-dimensional presence. Wearing a sumptuous scarlet robe, he has just started to open his gilded vessel, revealing his gift of frankincense. Biblical commentators interpreted Melchior's gift, which was burnt as incense in biblical times, as representing sacrifice, prayer, and the recognition of Christ's divine majesty.

This painting was one of five images that Rubens painted for Moretus at that time. The other four represented the Virgin and Child; Joseph; and the other two Magi: the Greek king, traditionally named Gaspar; and the Ethiopian king, traditionally named Balthasar. Like many citizens in Antwerp, Balthasar Moretus and his brothers were named after the three kings—in the hope, according to their father, that they would "seek to do honor and glory to Him after the example of the Three Kings." Three paternal uncles also bore the names Balthasar, Gaspar, and Melchior. The family affinity for the kings is also evident in Balthasar Moretus's personal motto, stella duce ("with the star as guide"), and he even incorporated the star of the Magi into printer's marks for Plantin Press publications, some of which were designed by Rubens.

Beyond the associations of the Magi to Balthasar Moretus, the biblical account of the Adoration of the Magi was deeply meaningful to the pious Rubens, who painted the subject at least twelve times.  It was also an important theme for Antwerp, the great international port that welcomed so many distant travelers, as the Magi had been.

Provenance

Balthasar Moretus the Elder [1574-1641], Antwerp; by inheritance to his nephew, Balthasar Moretus the Younger [1615-1674], Antwerp. Graaf Van de Werve de Vosselaer, Antwerp; (his sale, Antwerp, March 1781 [sold together with The Greek Magus and The Ethiopian Magus]);[1] Graaf de Roose, Antwerp; by inheritance to his wife, Graavin de Roose, Antwerp; (her estate sale, at her residence, Antwerp, 8 May 1798, no. 5, bought in by her daughter, Graavin de Beauffort);[2] by inheritance through the family de Beauffort to Comtesse Amedée de Beauffort, née de Roose de Baisy, Paris; (sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 10 April 1876, no. 2);[3] John Waterloo Wilson [1815-1883], Brussels and Paris; (his sale, at his residence, Paris, 14-16 March 1881, no. 98); Léon Gauchez [1825-1907], Paris.[4] private collection, London; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 13 July 1889, no. 55 [sold together with The Greek Magus); Pryor.[5] Boesch collection, Vienna. (sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 4 June 1891, no. 43); (Bourgeois & Cie, Paris).[6] (Durand-Ruel, Paris); sold 1892 to Charles H. Senff [d. 1911], New York and Whitestone, Long Island; (his estate sale, Anderson Galleries, 28-29 March 1928, 2nd day, no. 20); Charles Senff's niece, Mrs. Louise Senff Cameron, New Windsor, New York; (sale, Anderson Galleries, New York, 9-11 April 1929, 2nd day, no. 154); Chester Dale [1883-1962], New York; gift 1943 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1873
Exposition de tableaux et dessins d'anciens maîtres, La société néerlandaise de bienfaisance, Brussels, 1873, no. 153.
1931
Renoir and His Tradition, Museum of French Art, French Institute in the United States, New York, 1931, no. 2.
1936
An Exhibition of Sixty Paintings and Some Drawings by Peter Paul Rubens, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1936, no. 13.
1939
Masterpieces of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture from 1300-1800, New York World's Fair, 1939, no. 327.
1965
The Chester Dale Bequest, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1965, unnumbered checklist.
2015
Peter Paul Rubens: The Three Magi Reunited, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2015, no catalogue.
Bibliography
1943
Washington Times-Herald 18 July 1943:C-10
1965
Paintings other than French in the Chester Dale Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 13, repro.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 118.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 106, repro.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 312, repro.
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 360, repro.
2005
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Flemish Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2005: 183-188, color repro.