The Rubenshuis, Antwerp, by Barbara Lewis.
In the popular imagination, great artists starve in icy, north-facing garrets. The Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a grand exception.
His wealth allowed him to embellish his Antwerp home with Italianate features, turning it into a Flemish version of a palazzo that embodied his artistic ideals and housed the studio where he created much of his prodigious output.
Three centuries later, in 1937 when the city acquired it, the house had fallen into ruin.
Now fully restored, with its chequered Flemish floors, semi-circular gallery and portico inspired by a Roman triumphal arch, the Rubenshuis is one of the most popular attractions in a vibrant city, just under an hour’s train journey from Brussels.
Hard-core Rubens fans might be disappointed at the relatively few pieces of the artist’s own work on display.
But for those who think they have seen enough of Rubens’ fleshy bodies elsewhere, a trip to his home gives a deep impression of the man himself, his own tastes in art and of the world he commanded.
He flourished not only as the dominant artist of his day, but as an international diplomat. He enjoyed good relations with kings and queens, with his many pupils and two wives, one of whom died of the plague, while the other outlived him.
As a gentleman of substance, he wore the Spanish fashions of the day, complete with cartwheel ruffs, which sometimes required more than 15 metres of material, and he slept in a ridiculously short bed by modern standards as a half-seated position was felt to promote good digestion and circulation.
It failed to cure the chronic gout thought to have caused the heart failure that killed him.
Rubens’ Antwerp, ruled by the Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella on the Catholic King of Spain’s behalf, was dominated by the struggle against Protestantism.
Bloody religious skirmishing led to the division of the Netherlands in the 1580s as the northern provinces won independence from Spanish rule. The southern Netherlands, including Antwerp, previously a bastion of Calvinism and a hugely important trading port, was retained and its citizens obliged to practise Catholicism.
Rubens’ father Jan Rubens, a Calvinist, had fled Antwerp for Germany at the height of the religious turmoil. His wife, Rubens’ mother Maria Pypelincks returned to Antwerp two years after her husband’s premature death in 1587 and raised Peter Paul Rubens as a Catholic.
Apparently, he embraced the religion that his father shunned, accepting many religious commissions, in vogue as the Counter-Reformation was enforced.
Profoundly influenced by a formative period in Italy, Rubens ran the grandiose Baroque studio he created in his home after the manner of Italian Renaissance masters, such as Raphael and Michelangelo.
When a big commission came in, Rubens produced the preparatory sketches, which were then worked on by assistants. Typically, he then finished off the most prominent elements, although for the most important commissions, he would do the entire work himself.
Not surprisingly, apprentices queued up. Rubens declared he had to turn down more than 100, including some of his own and his wife’s relatives.
His relationship with them comes across in a touching note to one of his pupils, Lucas Faydherbe, who was left behind when Rubens had headed off to his country estate. The master wrote: “My dear Lucas, Take care before leaving to fasten up everything securely and let no originals or sketches remain in the studio. Also remind Willem, the gardener, to send us in due season the Rosalie pears, the figs or anything else that is good from the garden. Do come here as quickly as you can so that the house can be closed up. Your faithful friend, Peter Paul Rubens.”
The most famous and talented of Rubens’ protégés was Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641).
The studio includes a portrait of the young van Dyck, traditionally attributed to Rubens, but experts have increasingly taken the view it is a self-portrait.
Rubens himself painted relatively few self-portraits – a mere four, whereas some of his contemporaries churned out scores. One of the four hangs in the Rubenshuis that was painted in the same year, 1630, as he married his second wife Helena Fourment.
The man looking out of the frame with keen, thoughtful eyes and a perfectly-coiffed beard was 53. Fourment was a beauty of 16. Rubens deliberated over the age gap and frankly, almost relished it, along with her lack of aristocracy.
His first wife Isabella Brant died of the plague in 1626. Writing to his friend the scholar Pierre Dupuy, he wrote he had “lost an excellent companion and one worthy of all affection, for she had none of the faults of her sex”.
Grieving though he was, he decided to marry again and laid out his thoughts on the matter in a letter to the French scholar Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc.
Rubens said he had resisted the advice of those who tried to persuade him to marry into nobility, fearing “the vice of pride that often accompanies high birth”.
Instead, he took a young wife from “an honest burgher family”, writing: “I have preferred a person who would not blush at the sight of me taking my brushes in my hand, and to tell you the truth, it seemed hard for me to trade the precious treasure of my freedom for the embraces of an old woman.”
The couple had five children and Fourment – who features in many of his paintings – served as his muse.
After Rubens died, Fourment continued to live in the house for several more years – and then taking the step her late husband had studiously avoided, she married into aristocracy and moved to Brussels.
Barbara Lewis © December 2013.