The staging of the exhibition ‘A House of Art: Rubens as Collector’ in 2004 is, without doubt, the most ambitious project ever undertaken at the Rubenshuis – the house-museum of Peter Paul Rubens (1573-1640) that has existed at his one-time residence in Antwerp for almost half a century. It was organized by Kristin Lohse Belkin and Fiona Healy as two guest curators, in an attempt to recreate the spirit of the place where Rubens lived, worked, and displayed his rich collection of art and antiquities. As acknowledged in the preface, the task of selecting and displaying a representative number of the hundreds of objects associated with Rubens’s collection at one or another point of his life was exceptionally rewarding as well as daunting. Belkin and Healy accomplished this goal commendably, both in terms of setting up the ephemeral Rubens-museum last spring in Antwerp, and with the beautifully produced catalogue as the more tangible product of their labor of love.
The principal collaborator of the curatorial team was Jeffrey M. Muller. His introductory essay, while largely based upon his earlier monograph Rubens: The Artist as Collector (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), constitutes a significantly expanded and more complex consideration of the artist as a member of the cultural elite of Antwerp. Belkin and Healy wrote most of the individual catalogue entries, aided by Gregory Martin, who contributed several discussions on landscape paintings by Rubens and other Flemish masters (specifically, Adriaen Brouwer).
If Muller’s long-standing attention to the artist’s self-fashioning as a collector, evidenced by many other publications that he has contributed to this topic, was clearly of critical importance for the conceptual framework of this exhibition, the two curators can be credited for an admirably judicious and imaginative approach to the reconstruction of Rubens’s ‘house of art.’ The inventory of the artist’s collection of paintings and sculptures drawn up after his death in 1640 was admittedly a good point of departure, albeit with considerable caveats. Thus, of the 324 itemized paintings, about 120 can be identified, yet in some cases quite tentatively, through surviving originals, copies or versions thereof. Likewise, beyond seven ivory sculptures by contemporary Flemish sculptors and a precious salt-cellar, this inventory is silent concerning the other three-dimensional objects in the artist’s exquisite collection.
The documentary inadequacy of the 1640 inventory was just one of the challenging aspects of this reconstruction. Another was the fact that Rubens amassed and modified his holdings over his entire lifetime. A famous example is his acquisition of a veritable collection of ‘ancient marbles’ from Sir Dudley Carleton in 1618 in exchange for many of his own paintings, followed by an equally major sale of antiquities to the Duke of Buckingham in 1626. Thus, it is not surprising that the selection of ancient sculptures in this exhibition was restricted to objects that can be firmly connected to the artist’s collection, either on the basis of their presence in some of his paintings (i.e. the bust of ‘Seneca,’ cat. 65) or in reproductive engravings from Rubens’s circle (i.e. the funerary urn of Acilia Hygia, cat. 64). The choice of ancient gems, coins and cameos that would be representative of the artist’s much admired glyptothèque was similarly hindered by the absence of fully dependable documents. In some instances, the curators relied on descriptions of objects from the artist’s collection contained in his rich correspondence with Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, the esteemed French connoisseur of antiquity (i.e. the cameo of the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche, cat. 66, and the cameo of the Bust of Tiberius, cat. 67). In others, they based their conclusions on the 1657 inventory of the collection of Albert Rubens, the artist’s oldest son and an esteemed antiquarian in his own right, who is known to have inherited most of his father’s books, as well as a number of gems (e.g. cameo of the Triumph of Luna, cat. 68). Last but not least, their painstaking retracing of this category of objects to Rubens’s collection was surely aided by Marjon van der Meulen’s Rubens: Copies after the Antique (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, XXIII, I-III, London, 1994). Given these limiting conditions, acknowledged in individual entries, the curators showed a remarkable resourcefulness in their re-installation of the artist’s collection, offering to the audience a rather solid historic insight, and equally importantly, an aesthetic evocation of its original viewing context.
More than anything else, by bringing together so many objects that were obviously dear to Rubens’s voracious mind, this exhibition provided an unprecedented opportunity for consideration of the discursive nature of his collection. It allowed Fiona Healy, for instance, to highlight the relationship between Rubens’s Angelica and the Hermit (cat. 13), and Van Dyck’s Jupiter and Antiope (cat. 28), the only mythological painting of the nine works of this illustrious student recorded in the master’s collection. Likewise, Kristin Belkin’s entry on the artist’s self-portrait from the Rubenshuis (cat. 55) was enriched by the fact that this painting could be compared to the unattributed Göttingen Portrait of Rubens and his Son Albert (cat. 57), and the Leiden statue of Hecate Triformis (cat. 63). Lastly, seeing so many works by Northern masters, from the version after the famous Moneychanger by Quentin Massys (cat. 21) to still-lifes by artists such as Jan Jansz den Uyl and Willem Claesz Heda (cats. 48, 49), together with five of the thirty-four copies by Rubens after Titian (cats. 5-9), as well as with examples of the more recondite aspects of his taste such as the cameo of Harpocrates (cat. 71) and the studio drawing of the Egyptian mummy from the Ptolemaic period (cat. 78) provides a vivid demonstration of the argument developed in Muller’s introductory essay about the intricate overlay of aesthetic criteria, antiquarianism, and personal affinities within the artist’s collection.
The merits of the exhibition and its afterlife with this catalogue far outweigh any difficulties inherent in its concept. Taken together, these two scholarly enterprises have significantly contributed to our understanding of the manner in which this exceptional seventeenth-century painter and intellectual created his works and admired those of many other artists in a house that could rightly be termed a personal palace of cultural memory.
University of Maryland