This article is from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To receive the full magazine, why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
In the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, there is a triptych by Peter Paul Rubens to which I return again and again. The incredulity of Saint Thomas is one of the most emblematic scenes of Christian art, but the images that catch the eye are the portraits on the two side panels which represent the donors of the painting: Sir Nicolaas Rockox, the mayor of Antwerp, and his wife Adriana Perez.
Sir Nicolaas was one of Rubens’ closest friends, and this intimate relationship is evident in the quality of these portraits. You feel like you know these people – you feel like you could step into that picture and talk to them. It’s hard to believe they lived four hundred years ago.
These portraits sum up why Antwerp is such an integral part of Rubens’ story and why a visit to this bustling Flemish port city is essential if you want to get inside his art. Rubens spent most of his life here, he painted most of his masterpieces here, and the city has an unrivaled collection of his paintings.
There are dozens of these masterpieces in the Museum of Fine Arts, but there are just as many scattered around the city, in the places for which they were painted. It’s here, in the homes and churches where they were meant to be displayed, rather than in any art gallery, that you discover the real Rubens – not just one of art’s greatest figures western, but one of the most misunderstood.
Rubens is a colossus of European art, but the British never appreciated him. To British tastes, his work seems pompous, exaggerated. It is a selective point of view. By and large, the great paintings that found their way into major public galleries, in Britain and elsewhere, were vanity projects commissioned by autocratic monarchs. In Antwerp you see another side of Rubens – portraits of his friends and family, pictures painted for his own pleasure. The private Rubens turns out to be more sympathetic, more human.
Yet there are other reasons why Rubens is overlooked in Britain, deeper reasons than the flamboyant aesthetic of his larger canvases. As a Counter-Reformation painter, his work was unsympathetic to British Protestants, but the main reason is that he refutes our idealistic concept of the artist as an outsider – a tormented loner, toiling in a dingy attic.
This romantic ideal, personified by dark artists like van Gogh, remains our model of an artist’s behavior, but it is a 19th century notion and not one that Rubens would have recognized. In Rubens’ early days at the end of the 16th century, becoming an artist was not an act of racketeering rebellion, it was a sensible and conventional career choice.
Rubens was not just an artist. He was also a shrewd businessman, an able diplomat and probably a spy. He was knighted by the kings of England and Spain. His self-portraits do not portray him as an artist but as a wealthy nobleman. This conservative, conformist image is far removed from our contemporary idea of how an artist should present themselves, but Rubens would not have seen anything strange in it. To do so as an artist was to become part of the establishment. Is that why we don’t appreciate it? Is our disinterest really a form of reverse snobbery?
Like many successful businessmen, Rubens had relatively humble beginnings. The sixth of seven children, he was born in 1577 in Siegen, Westphalia, where his father had been forced to flee after impregnating William of Orange’s wife. After the death of his father, in 1587, his mother brought him back to his native city, Antwerp, where he went to school. Rubens received a good education at a Latin (i.e. grammar) school in Antwerp, but his father had snuffed out the family fortune and trashed his reputation, so Rubens had to learn a trade. This profession was painting.
Rubens was apprenticed to several prominent Antwerp painters, then traveled to Italy, where he drew inspiration from contemporary artists such as Caravaggio as well as old masters like Raphael and Michelangelo. The Italians were quick to spot his talent and he quickly became a rising star until his mother’s death in 1608 brought him reluctantly back to Antwerp.
Rubens was loath to go home, but his timing could hardly have been better. Antwerp had just emerged from a period of fierce sectarian strife, its ornate Catholic churches had been desecrated by Calvinist iconoclasts, and Rubens was employed to redecorate them.
For Catholicism, his euphoric paintings were the best possible public relations. Yet it wasn’t just restoration work – Rubens created something new. During his eight years in Italy he had been deeply influenced by Italian painters, including Titian and Tintoretto, and now he has brought that Mediterranean bravery back to Flanders, uniting the art schools of Northern Europe and Europe from South.
Then as now, Antwerp was one of the largest and wealthiest ports in Europe, a center of intellectual and creative life as well as commerce. Now the city was at peace again, after decades of bloody unrest, its merchant classes were thriving, and Rubens became a key member of this emerging upper middle class. Just as he loved Italy, Rubens was cunning enough to see that Antwerp was a better base. In Italy, he would have been a great artist among many others. Here he quickly became the leader of the pack.
Antwerp was part of the Spanish Netherlands, and as Rubens’ fame spread abroad, he was recruited by the Spanish crown to broker diplomatic relations with France and England. Today, the idea of an artist moonlighting as a diplomat seems unlikely, almost absurd, but it was quite common in those days. Leading artists had easy access to foreign courts, where they could make contacts and obtain useful information.
Courteous and discreet, Rubens was a natural diplomat, ostensibly at home in any foreign capital. In fact, it was all just a facade. “I hate the courts,” he confessed, declining an invitation to return to London. He could easily have stayed in England, like his most talented pupil, Anthony van Dyck, but his heart was back in Antwerp. “I made the decision to force myself to cut this golden knot of ambition in order to regain my freedom,” he wrote. “Best of all, I would like to go home and stay there all my life.” And it is in his hometown that much of his work remains.
The best place to start your visit to Rubens is at the Rubenshuis (High), his home and studio from 1615 until his death in 1640. Six of his eight children were born here; his first wife, Isabella, and his eldest child, Clara, both died here. It was there that he created many of his most famous paintings, supported by many assistants (this is another way that Rubens departed from our modern idea of what constitutes an artist – he was the chief of a team of painters, more like a director than a one-man-band).
There are some amazing paintings here, including his self-portrait, painted in 1630, at the height of his powers, but the most telling thing about this building is the architecture, rather than the content.
When he bought it in 1615, it was an elegant Flemish mansion. Rubens turned it into a mansion, adding many Italianate flourishes, including an ostentatious portico. Obviously, he was not shy about flaunting his status, as his house was not just a home but a place for receiving wealthy and powerful potential clients. As a corporate headquarters, it was built to impress.
Next stop is the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Antwerp (left), which contains two of Rubens’ finest paintings: The Raising of the Cross and The descent from the cross. The former so passionate, the latter so deprived, they complement each other perfectly. It’s wonderful to see them in a religious setting, rather than in an antiseptic gallery.
The altarpiece, The Ascension of the Virgin, would be the star attraction in any other setting. Look for Rubens’ discreet portrait of his first wife Isabelle, who died while he was painting it. Movingly, she is depicted standing above the empty tomb of Mary.
Remarkably, there are also many paintings by Rubens in various churches around Antwerp. At St. Paul, where Rubens went to confess to his favorite priest, Michael Ophovius (whose portrait of Rubens is in the Rubenshuis), there are three fine paintings by Rubens, including The Flagellation of Christ (detail, left), in which Jesus turns his back on us, putting us in the position of his persecutors. Like the brilliant director he surely would have been had he been born today, Rubens has a genius for injecting new drama into the most familiar scene.
Rubens’ parish church was St James, where he worshiped daily, and married his second wife, Helena. Their children were all baptized here, and when he. dead, aged 63, he was buried here. His old friend, Nicolaas Rockox, died a few months later and was buried alongside him.
The painting by Rubens that adorns this church is particularly appropriate: Mary surrounded by saints, painted in the last years of Rubens’ life. Some scholars believe it to be a portrait of Rubens and his two wives, Isabella and Helena, with Isabella as Mary, Helena as Mary Magdalene, and Rubens as St George.
I ended my last trip to Antwerp at the Rockox house, where Sir Nicolaas lived during Rubens’ time. Rubens was a frequent visitor and, 400 years later, this beautiful but discreet house is still the same. Rockox commissioned many of Rubens’ greatest works, not only the The incredulity of Saint Thomas (above) at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, but also The descent from the cross in the cathedral, and Samson and Delilah, originally purchased to hang above the fireplace in this house, but now hangs in the National Gallery, London. Visitors to London will be delighted to see it there, but even though I live in London, I would much rather see it in the setting it was intended for.
No matter. The Rockox House still preserves a large painting by Rubens, his Virgin and Childmakes it a portrait of his first wife, Isabella, and their son, Nicolaas, the namesake of his dear friend (Nicolaas Rockox and his wife died childless and left all their possessions to the poor).
Rubens also died a wealthy man, and if his life has a lesson for today, it’s this: if you want to be a great artist, you don’t have to be a rebel, you don’t don’t need to shock or surprise. You just need to perfect your craft.