This beautifully produced and much anticipated book is the companion to the first-ever exhibition focusing on the more private side of Rubens’s genius – a selection of self-portraits and portraits of family members and friends. Organized and held at the Rubenshuis, the exhibition brought together works from over twenty-five public and private collections. The catalogue is similarly ambitious in scope, with essays by Ben van Beneden, Nils Büttner, Nora de Poorter, Katlijne van der Stighelen, Cordula van Wyhe, Johan Verberckmoes, Hans Vlieghe, and Bert Watteeuw. Other contributors include Gert van der Snickt, Gerlinde Gruber, Koen Janssens, Elke Orethaler and Monika Strolz. The result of this joint undertaking is a thorough and multi-faceted examination of some of the most remarkable and understudied paintings by an artist who is generally regarded as one of the most publicly-minded of the old masters. The painted portraits are accompanied by a number of equally memorable preliminary drawings, as well as other works on paper – including some of the artist’s letters.
An excellent prologue by the Director of the Rubenshuis Ben van Beneden defines the parameters of the project, underscoring several important elements. One is the fact that while the prolific pictor doctuspainted very few portraits on commission, those of friends and family members exceed in number the complete oeuvre of artists like Vermeer and Caravaggio. Another one is that the majority of these portraits had a highly personal and commemorative function, with the exception of those with more “public” aspirations, such as the artist’s self-portrait of 1623 for Charles I of England. Nonetheless, as Van Beneden notes, by their display in the artist’s house(s) and studio, these works fostered a certain image of Rubens and his family, and provided models for his numerous studio assistants.
Hans Vlieghe reviews the main themes and stylistic features of this body of work, noting that what distinguishes Rubens’s portraits of friends, family, and himself is his ability to combine “iconography, compositional structure, facial expression, and the play of gestures and poses, to achieve an insightful visual representation of his own social status and that of his relatives, while sensitively conveying the bonds of affection” (p. 19) among the persons portrayed. He also reinforces the point that most of these portraits are encoded with clues concerning social and intellectual aspirations of the sitters, as well as about their moral and spiritual values.
Nils Büttner extends this argument to the artist’s self-portraits, maintaining that each one is a carefully constructed “persona” in line with specific social/ intellectual ideals of the period. His premise about the difference between our views of self-portraits and those of seventeenth-century audiences finds support throughout the catalogue, from early painting such as the group portrait of the artist with Mantuan friends (Cat. 7), to his last, majestic self-portrait from Vienna (ca. 1638-1640) intended for his house collection and conceived as a kind of counterpart to Titian’s late self-portrait from the Prado (ca. 1562). His essay makes it quite clear that Rubens was intensely self-conscious of the persona he presented. That does not mean, however, that his self-portraits are bereft of genuinely felt emotions.
The social conditions of the “private” Rubens are just as important in Bert Watteeuw’s wittily structured essay on the artist’s domestic staff. Though he concedes that the dearth of primary and secondary sources allows for a merely “exploratory” and “anecdotal” study (p. 57), the facts he does pull together suggest that Rubens and his wives had a rather good relationship with those who helped them run their household. Some of the author’s efforts to reclaim these men and women from historic oblivion feel strained, however, especially when it comes to the identities of the sitters in images such as the “Laughing Cavalier” from the Cantoor, whom he identifies as the painter’s pigment grinder Franchoys (p. 67). Alas, just as there is scarcity of documents, there is simply not enough pictorial evidence to bring these members of the artist’s circle into greater visibility.
Cordula van Wyhe shows a similarly socio-historic bent in her essay on the role of attire in the shaping and projecting of the sitters’ identities. Though the dress as an index of a persona (and personhood) is a commonplace in discussions of early modern portraiture, this essay certainly enriches our understanding of the artist’s use of fashion as a rhetorical “ornament.” Yet for all of the cultural codes she identifies, Van Wyhe also recognizes the difficulty of answering one of the most basic questions that any study of the “sartorial” side of Rubens’s portraits invites: the interplay between conventions and personal taste as an expression of an individual subjectivity. Johan Verberckmoes complements this section of the catalogue by examining the family structure in the Spanish Netherlands, and the notions of ancestry and succession as exemplified by the topos of the “Stairs of Life.” While his contribution makes no reference to Rubens per se, it provides a very useful background concerning the demographic, social, and theological realities behind the relationships depicted or implied in Rubens’s portraits of his brother, his wives, and children.
Notwithstanding the importance of all of the socio/cultural facets of these portraits, what one wishes for throughout the catalogue is a closer attention to the painter’s astounding ability to evoke a range of emotional states in his sitters – from the uninhibited, endearing joyfulness of the child, as exemplified in the marvelous smile of Clara Serena that graces the cover of this book, to the reflective reserve in his last self-portrait. His sensitivity to psychology is even more manifest in some of the wonderful drawings interspersed with the paintings. Our notions of the self may well be different from those of the viewers of Rubens’s time, but as his contemporary Constantijn Huygens would famously state, a face is always a “unique revelation of a person’s soul.” (cited by van Beneden, p. 13).
The essay that stands apart in terms of its focus and methodology is the one dedicated to the notorious ‘Het Pelsken’, the full-length portrait of Helena, nude except for a sensuous fur-throw that discloses more than it covers. Co-authored by Van der Stighelen, Van der Snickt, Gruber and Janssens, it presents a new reading of this painting prompted by a recent technical investigation that uncovered a hitherto unknown element: a fountain with a urinating boy, initially placed right next to Rubens’s beloved, and eventually painted over. As the authors meticulously demonstrate, this figure – deriving from antique prototypes of ‘puer mingens’ and urinating putti in Bacchic scenes, such as Titian’s famed Andrians (copied by Rubens) – enhanced the erotic value of this portrait, turning Helena into a veritable Venus-like goddess, with all of her attendant connotations. Though they remain uncertain regarding the artist’s reasons for painting this figure over, what this technical discovery and the analysis seem to reaffirm more than anything else is how insightful the late Julius Held was regarding the visual sources and resonances of ‘Het Pelsken’ in his 1967 article (‘Rubens’”Het Pelsken”, in D. Fraser, H. Hibbard and M.J. Lewine, Essays in the History of Art Presented to Rudolf Wittkower, London, 1967, pp. 188-192).
The individual catalogue entries are meticulous in terms of information on the provenance, exhibition history, and relevant primary and secondary sources. Regrettably, some of them do not go beyond a review of earlier interpretations – which may be a function of limitations imposed by the publisher. These constraints may also have played a part in the fact that original letters by the artist are reproduced in full color, but their content is merely summarized; a great loss, especially in a catalogue that aims to explore more closely the intimate side of Rubens’s painting and writing.
Consider the oft-cited letter to Pierre Dupuy of July 15, 1626, which the author of the respective entry judges as containing “little by way of emotional revelation” (p. 182). A reader who is encountering this letter for the first time will surely be at a loss as s/he reads on that the artist is actually writing about the death of his wife Isabella Brant, that he speaks of this grief as a human emotion beyond censure (emphasis mine) and that he distances himself from the Stoic ideal of equanimity. How much more revelatory can a seventeenth-century letter be, one might wonder?
Let us conclude by a note on the other major ‘discovery’ in this exhibition – a portrait, possibly of Clara Serena Rubens (ca. 1620-1623) from a private collection in London (Cat. 23). The story behind this modestly sized oil sketch is no less intriguing than that involving the pentimenti in ‘Het Pelsken.’ Deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013 as a work of a follower, this painting was sold at Sotheby’s for over 625,000 dollars the same year (the initial estimate being only 30,000 dollars). Following a recent cleaning that removed a layer of green paint, scholars such as Van der Stighelen are suggesting it is an autograph work, especially on account of “the quality of the face, the open-necked blouse, and the drapery around the shoulders” (p.190). Others, such as David Jaffé, remain unconvinced, upholding Julius Held’s position that this is a work of a pupil.
While attribution judgments are impossible without a first-hand study, the reproductions of this painting in the catalogue, especially the close up of the girl’s face, are exceptionally good: we can see every brushstroke, from the lightest ones in the background and her hair, to the boldest and widest ones on her forehead … and precisely because these images are so good, they are bound to keep the debate over the authorship of this painting open, even among those who did not have the good fortune to visit the Antwerp exhibition in person.
University of Maryland, College Park