Emperor Otho by Peter Paul Rubens

Madeleine Gray, Collections Assistant Decorative Arts

Every collection has its gem. North Lincolnshire Museums is no exception. Although the collection boasts a range of delightful paintings, one small portrait stands out.

The subject of the painting is the Roman emperor Marcus Salvius Otho. Otho ruled Rome during the year AD 69 – the Year of the Four Emperors. He’s not the best looking of chaps. The Roman historian Suetonius said Otho ‘had the hair of his body plucked out, and because of the thinness of his locks wore a wig so carefully fashioned and fitted to his head that no one suspected it.’

Emperor Otho by Peter Paul Rubens.

Emperor Otho was an interesting character. But it is the story behind the painting that makes it special.

The painting was purchased at auction by Scunthorpe Museum in 1967. It was listed in the catalogue as School of Titian. Yet, the then Curator of the Museum, Michael Kirkby, believed the painting to be School of Rubens. He bought it for just £5. Michael Jaffé, the distinguished Peter Paul Rubens expert, believed it to be the lost Emperor Otho from the Twelve Caesars series. The Emperor’s series was painted by Rubens himself. This was finally verified 21 years after it was purchased. It is likely that Rubens painted it for his own pleasure in the mid-1620s.

Its known where nine of Rubens’ twelve emperors paintings are. But three remain missing. We often wonder, where are the other three? Destroyed? Lying undiscovered in a dusty attic? Hanging unidentified on the wall of a house? Perhaps one day we will hear of their rediscovery.

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