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The work is a sketch for the painting Prince William I Interceding on Behalf of Roman Catholic prisoners in Ghent on 27 December 1578. Van Bree made the drawing and the resulting painting for King William I, a descendent of the depicted William of Orange.
The artist wanted to draw the king’s attention to the example of his illustrious forebear, who placed great importance on religious tolerance – a theme that is as topical and relevant today as ever
Mattheus Ignatius van Bree was a popular history painter and an excellent teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, of which he later became the director. He also had a hand in the restoration of many of the Rubens paintings looted by Napoleon and returned to Antwerp following the French Emperor’s defeat.
The museum has several other works by Van Bree, the most outstanding of which is undoubtedly The Death of Peter Paul Rubens. It too was painted for King William I, who donated it to the museum in 1829. It was a special gift, in that the institution had previously only owned works by deceased artists. Van Bree was still very much alive at the time and serving as director of the Antwerp Academy.
The drawing is especially interesting for what it reveals about the Antwerp artist’s creative process. What we see is a rapid, free sketch, slightly nervy in execution and not much larger than an A4 sheet. It was done in preparation for a monumental painting and is a fine addition to our print and drawing collection.