Around 1616 Peter Paul Rubens engaged in a large tapestries series project about the heroic Roman consul Decius Mus. This panel, which is a small sketch or modello for the larger composition, depicted the first episode of that story, which normally consisted of seven or eight scenes. In his History of Rome, Livy describes an episode in the war between the Romans and the Samnites, the inhabitants of the plains of Latium (south-central Italy), against their Roman rulers in 340 BC. The Roman forces led by co-consuls Decius Mus and Titus Manlius were outnumbered and in danger of defeat when an apparition visited them both at night and declared that victory would come to the army whose leader lost his life. Decius Mus, thus, vowed that he would sacrifice himself to ensure Roman victory.
In the Gallery’s painting, Rubens depicts Decius Mus recounting the apparition to his soldiers the following morning. With his right arm raised and left hand holding the commander’s staff, he strikes a powerful pose that conveys the gravitas of the vision as his men listen with rapt attention. The soldiers hold the signa, or legionary standards, of the Roman republic—the Roman eagle, or Aquila; the open palm, a symbol for virtue; and the standard inscribed SPQR, the symbol of the Roman Republic—and lend historical legitimacy to scene.
Rubens maintained an abiding fascination with Greco-Roman antiquity throughout his career. This interest manifested in his fidelity to ancient literary and pictorial sources and in the subject matter he chose. The lion-scalp trim on Decius Mus’s boots, his armor with its torso-molded breastplate ornamented with griffins, and even the lappets on his skirt adorned with alternating lion and human heads were all drawn from historic sources. Rubens was profoundly influenced by the ancient philosopher Justus Lipsius’s writings about the great Stoic philosopher, Seneca, who hailed Decius Mus a model for military and political leadership due to his constancy, virtue, and nobility. Rubens underscored these Stoic ideals by placing Decius Mus on a marble dais whose square shape emblematized fortitude.
Pierre-Louis-Paul Randon de Boisset [1709-1776], Paris; (his estate sale, Paris, 27 February 1777, no. 31). Destouches, Paris; (his sale, A.J. LeBrun and Ph. Fr. Jueliot, Paris, 21 March 1794, no. 5); John Trumbull [1756-1843], Paris and New York; (his sale, Christie's, London, 17 February 1797, no. 25). Fritz August von Kaulbach [1850-1920], Munich; (his estate sale, Hugo Helbing, Munich, 29-30 October 1929, no. 194). (Frederick Mont, Inc., New York); sold 8 February 1955 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York; gift 1957 to NGA.
- Von Bruegel bis Rubens: Das goldene Jahrhundert der flämischen Malerei, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne; Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp; Kunsthistorischen Museum, Vienna, 1992-1993, no. 44.8rman cat.), no. 38b (Dutch cat.), repros.
- Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, Greenwich, Connecticut; Univ. of California, Berkeley Art Museum; Cincinnati Art Museum, 2004-2005, no. 5, repro. (shown only in Greenwich and Cincinnati).
- Rubens, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille, 2004, no. 150, repro.
- Klassiker der Kunst V (1921): 460.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection Acquired by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation 1951-56. Introduction by John Walker, text by William E. Suida and Fern Rusk Shapley. National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1956: 152-155, no. 59, repro.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 292, repro.
- Walker, John, Guy Emerson, and Charles Seymour. Art Treasures for America: An Anthology of Paintings & Sculpture in the Samuel H. Kress Collection. London, 1961: 147, color repro. pl. 138.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Treasures from the National Gallery of Art, New York, 1962: 78, color repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 310, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 118.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:266, color repro.
- European Paintings and Sculpture: Illustrations (Companion to the Summary Catalogue, 1965). Washington, 1968: 105, no. 1394, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 314, repro.
- Eisler, Colin. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, 1977: 104-106, fig. 101.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 252, no. 320, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 360, repro.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Flemish Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2005: 175-182, color repro.