New Rubens exhibition shows the man behind the painter


Antwerp’s Rubens House has pulled together several portraits the painter made of his wives and children, revealing a new, more private side to the seminal Renaissance artist

In the family

Peter Paul Rubens was a highly successful painter who worked for royalty and other wealthy patrons across Europe in the 17th century. But there was also a private side to his art, which is explored in Rubens in Private: The Master Portrays His Family, a new exhibition at the Rubens House in Antwerp.

The show brings together paintings and drawings of Rubens’ family, works that were intended to remain in their home – the very space where they are now exhibited – rather than go on display. When he died in 1640, his will specified that the portraits he painted of himself and of his wives should remain in the family.

While these images lie outside Rubens’ formal oeuvre, they still played an important role in his life. “They were meant to serve as memories,” explains Rubens House director Ben van Beneden. “They served as examples to follow, and, in a very subtle way, they created the image that the artist wanted to present of himself and of his family.”

In a self-portrait dated between 1623 and 1630, for example, Rubens casts himself as a kindly head of the household, implausibly youthful for a man in his 50s. Go forward to the self-portrait of 1638-39, and Rubens appears to have aged dramatically, becoming a heavyweight man of substance. In neither painting, nor in a self-portrait commissioned by the future Charles I of England, does he identify himself as an artist.


While these self-portraits make an impressive trio at the centre of the exhibition, the star of the show is undoubtedly Isabella Brant, Rubens’ first wife. We first meet her in a large, formal portrait by Anthony van Dyck.

The precocious young artist worked in Rubens’ studio, and this portrait may have been painted as a parting gift before van Dyck left Antwerp for an extended journey to Italy in 1621. Brant shares the frame with the massive portico that links the two wings of the Rubens House, rooting the image in this location.

This is a woman posing for her husband

- Ben van Beneden

But compare Brant’s cool gaze in this formal portrait with her impish look in Rubens’ private portrait of her from the same period (pictured). “This is not just someone sitting for a portrait painter,” van Beneden says. “This is a woman posing for her husband. They must have been joking or talking to one another – about what we don’t know. It is so full of vitality.”

The rapport is equally strong in a chalk drawing of Brant, the lightness of the lines and subtlety of colour quite unlike Rubens’ heavier formal portraits. “Many of Rubens' family portraits are very simple, very sketch-like,” says van Beneden. “They are informal, direct and honest.” A final portrait of Brant is more sombre and was probably completed after she died in 1626, a victim of the plague.

Rubens also made private paintings of his children, and there is something of Brant’s look in his portrait of the five-year-old Clara Serena. The exhibition’s main coup is that it has another portrait of the girl, previously attributed to a follower of Rubens, which restoration and research now indicate to be the work of her father.

“We are presenting it to the world and to international scholarship as being by Rubens, and we look forward to all the reactions that will bring with it,” van Beneden says. The painting used to belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York but was sold in 2013 as a minor work, to a private collector. Now restored, the painting has a beguiling lightness of touch. It may also be a posthumous portrait, painted after Clara Serena died in 1623, aged 12. 

Rubens vs Rembrandt

Rubens married for a second time in 1630 when he was 53, and his bride, Helena Fourment, just 16. Whatever else might be said of the match, it gave Rubens a new lease of life as an artist, prompting a move into landscapes, for example.

The exhibition’s earliest image of the couple is a rough sketch by Rubens on the back of the chalk portrait of Brant. This act of recycling seems even more scandalous than the difference in their ages. Subsequent paintings show Fourment alone and with a growing family. Even though she was reputed a great beauty, these pictures do not have half the feeling of Rubens’ portraits of Brant.

They show a completely different Rubens – not the Rubens that the public knows

- Ben van Beneden

One painting that would have redressed the balance is the sexually charged “Het Pelsken”, which shows the nude Fourment barely covering herself with a fur coat, gazing provocatively out at the artist. Once again, this was not a painting intended for the public. “It probably hung in the bedroom of Rubens’ house, either here or in Elewijt on his country estate,” says van Beneden.

“Het Pelsken” resides in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. Naturally, van Beneden would have liked it to appear in the show, but the painter’s methods make this impossible. “Rubens had the terrible habit – and I hate him for it – of painting on panel,” he explains. “Wood is incredibly fragile, and, on top of that, Rubens also often constructed the panels on which he painted from several planks of wood joined together. That makes these portraits even more fragile, and they can never travel.”

The exhibition makes up for this with a large facsimile of “Het Pelsken”, showing the wood joins. It also presents the results of newly commissioned research that reveals that the painting’s plain background conceals the image of an antique fountain, complete with the figure of a urinating boy. “That’s not just a reference to fertility but also to male ejaculation, making the painting even more erotic.”

The exhibition is the result of loans from museums and private collections across Europe and the US. Even without “Het Pelsken” and several other paintings that were too fragile to travel, van Beneden thinks the works assembled provide a new view of the artist. “They show a completely different Rubens,” he say. “Not the Rubens that the public knows, but Rubens in private.”

And as a champion of the Flemish painter, he cannot resist drawing a parallel with a Dutch rival. “We hear a lot about how intimate and emotional Rembrandt is, but forget Rembrandt; just go and look at Rubens.”
Until 28 June at Rubenshuis, Wapper 9-11, Antwerp
Photo: Rubens’ “Portrait of Isabella Brant”, dated 1620-1625
©The Cleveland Museum of Art