Transits: Where Is Peter Paul Rubens's “Tribute Money”?

Transits is a series that looks at the movement of art in the Fine Art Museums’ collection. A familiar favorite, Peter Paul Rubens's The Tribute Money was recently deinstalled at the Legion of Honor. Here, we find out why:

Peter Paul Rubens “The Tribute Money” (ca. 1612) undergoing study in the Museum’s conservation labs
Peter Paul Rubens's “The Tribute Money” (ca. 1612) undergoing study in the Museums' conservation labs

Visitors to the Legion of Honor have recently been confronted with a stranger: the startling visage in Urs Fischer’s Lead & Tin (2016). The Legion of Honor invited Fischer to create a temporary display of his work, and bring a contemporary perspective to our understanding and appreciation of the permanent collection. In Urs Fischer: The Public & the Private, which runs through July 2, Fischer orchestrated encounters of his works with the museum’s objects and spaces. Lead and Tin hangs in the place usually occupied by the Fine Arts Museums’ The Tribute Money (ca. 1612) by Peter Paul Rubens.

Urs Fischer, "Lead & Tin," 2016
Urs Fischer, "Lead & Tin," 2016. Aluminum panel, aramid honeycomb, two-component polyurethane adhesive, two-component epoxy primer, galvanized steel rivet nuts, acrylic primer, gesso, acrylic ink, acrylic silkscreen medium, acrylic paint, oil medium, Framed: 99 1/2 x 75 1/2 x 3 1/4 in. (252.7 x 191.8 x 8.3 cm). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Mats Nordman

Lead & Tin is a double image featuring the movie portrait of a female vampire superimposed with a ghostly, translucent mask without eyes, and a mouth that both veils and highlights her expression beneath. While it is a silkscreen, it speaks to the displacement of painting by the filmic image as a dominant visual mode to forge and disseminate worldviews. It is part of a group of works dedicated to the cinematic portrayal of undead monsters, two of which have taken the place of religious figures in the Legion of Honor (the other being Drained (2016) in lieu of St. John the Baptist Preaching (1665) by Mattia Preti). But how does this connect to Rubens's painting? 

Claudia Schmuckli, our curator of contemporary art explains:


“An idiom often attributed to Benjamin Franklin goes that nothing in life is certain but death and taxes. While Rubens's painting of Christ chiding the Pharisee for doubting the justness of paying taxes (the tribute money referred to in the title) addresses the latter, Fischer’s seductive, double-faced vision nestled among portraits of Rubens's contemporaries plays with present-day society’s anxious relationship with the former. For those fantasizing about an escape from death, it also associates the vampire’s promise of eternal existence with another form of tax, one paid for in blood.” 

Spooky stuff, but what has happened to the Rubens? Fear not, the Rubens will be back after undergoing study and treatment by our conservation department in preparation for an exhibition at the Legion of Honor in spring of 2019. The exhibition will focus on how Rubens established himself as the foremost painter of the Northern Baroque, examine his mastery over multiple visual styles and subject matter (both historical and mythological), and explore Rubens’s path to enduring international fame.

Installation view of “Urs Fischer: The Public & the Private” at the Legion of Honor
Installation view of “Urs Fischer: The Public & the Private” at the Legion of Honor

In the meantime, if you’re missing The Tribute Money, two other paintings by Rubens are still on view: his portraits of Rogier Clarisee and his wife Sara Breyll flank Lead and Tin in Gallery 14.