An Improbable Collaboration

Peter Paul Rubens once painted a mouse, only he didn’t paint it alone. He had help. Curious enough in itself, that the great master needed assistance. But in actuality collaboration was a customary practice in 1600s Antwerp where the Flemish Baroque artist lived and worked. Two heads, two hands, two sets of skills sometimes were better than one. Apart from his own exhaustive renderings of religious and allegorical subjects, landscapes and portraits, when it came to the animals, he would occasionally look toward his Antwerp neighbor and close friend Frans Snyders, who was considered the master of the animal paintings, to lend him a hand. That being said, Rubens himself was able to deftly portray animals—Daniel in the Lions’ Den, case in point. And when a patron once took some of Rubens’s animals to be Snyders’s, Rubens became rather sore. He pointedly said, “no one could depict dead animals better than Snyders, but for live animals, Rubens was himself the better painter.”[1]

Nevertheless Rubens turned to Snyders—or perhaps it was the other way around—when he was ready to paint The Lion and the Mouse.[2] As the title of their work suggests, the painting captures a moment from Aesop’s beloved fable about the two eponymous creatures, and kindness to small things and such. In the scene the mouse is gnawing at a hunter’s net to free the lion who’s been caught; he’s the same lion who had grabbed the mouse a few days earlier when the rodent had unceremoniously awakened him. At the time the lion showed the mouse mercy and let him go, and now the mouse had come to repay his kindness.

For a hundred years, give or take, The Lion and the Mouse has been adorning the library of Chequers—once the private home of Lord Lee of Fareham until he gifted it, along with all of its belongings, right after WWI to the state of England, to be used as the official country residence for British prime ministers. So it was only in due course that Sir Winston Churchill would come along and sit himself down at Chequers and study this work of Rubens and Snyders. And one night it seems, with the war undoubtedly on his mind as well as perhaps his painting, his own, Churchill looked at The Lion and the Mouse and made a decision. He asked for his palette and brush.

Churchill, you see, was an avid painter, having first taken to the activity in 1915 while soothing his low spirits after the disastrous campaign in the Dardanelles that had cost him his position as First Lord of the Admiralty. At the invitation of his sister-in-law who herself was an amateur watercolorist, he tried watercolors but moved quickly on to oils. And for the rest of his life he took frequent sojourns, from the South of France to South Africa, solely to paint. Although he ‘found painting hard in the uncertainty,’ he came to be regarded as quite proficient. “[Painting],” it was said, “was the only occupation which he ever pursued in total silence.”[3]

And on that night at Chequers, at least this is how the story goes, Churchill was sick and tired— Rubens, be damned—that the mouse in the painting was so difficult to see. He climbed a stepladder and remedied the situation, highlighting the small rodent, and giving it clarity.[4]


[1] Frans Snyders, J. Paul Getty Museum.

[2] Image (above) The Lion and the Mouse, (55 1/4 by 75 3/4 in), Frans Snyders and studio, after Rubens and Snyders.

[3] Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography

[4] The mouse, it was noted, was still hard to see; the painting has since been cleaned.

Other sources: Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life; C.V. Wedgwood and Time Life, The World of Rubens 1577-1640Time magazine, May 18, 1970.

(Images reproduced for non-commercial purposes only.)

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