London Art Reviews

Magazine of art press and reviews from London

Family portraits of Rubens published by Thames and Hudson, London.

David Franchi – Monday, 10th August 2015.

© Thames and Hudson, Rubens in Private.Rubens in Private. The Master Portrays his Family” is a fascinating book, published by Thames and Hudson, London.

Located in London, Thames and Hudson published the English edition of the book originally print for the exhibition “Rubens in private. The master portrays his family”. The show was a joint production between the Rubenshuis and Rubenianum, in Antwerp (Belgium), from 28th March until 28th June 2015.

The publication is appealing, full of information and images, accurate and precise. After all, Rubens is a topic about which it is possible to write a lot. Edited by Ben van Beneden, contributors are Nils Büttner, Nora De Poorter, Katlijen Van der Strighelen, Cordula van Wyhe, Johan Verberckmoes, Hans Vlieghe, and Bert Watteeuw.

The exhibition “Rubens in Private” focused on portraiture. It is curated by international Rubens experts and includes some 50 paintings and drawings from top-ranking museums, including the Uffizi in Florence, the British Museum in London, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein, and the Royal Collection, generously loaned by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The connection between Rubens and London are consistent. Perhaps, the most spectacular ceiling of London was painted by Rubens for the Banqueting House, during the reign of Charles I. It’s the only ceiling by Rubens still in situ. Also paintings of Rubens can be found at the National Gallery, The Courtauld Gallery, The Wallace Collection, and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Sir Peter Paul Rubens was knighted by King Charles I of England in 1630.

Peter Paul Rubens was a genius. He had many abilities and was gifted in being an artist, a politician, a collector, an architect and had a keen interested in science.

Rubens was indicated as a ‘homo universalis’, an epithet reserved for those Renaissance persons who were able to manage different skills. A famous story from Sperling, reported that he found Rubens painting, while simultaneously dictating letters and listening an assistant reading Tacitus and of course having a conversation with Sperling himself.

The book “Rubens in private” exposes the portrait of the members of the family of Rubens is an aspect that was not investigated until present days. Together with his letters, these portraits reveal the deep affection Rubens felt towards his family.

From the point of view of the art history, the huge opus of Rubens can be divided into two distinct bodies: public and private. The latter category includes his landscapes and the portraits he made of his family. For some unknown reasons, the portraits of his family were not previously exhibited.

As Michelangelo and many others contemporary artists, Rubens did not considered portraiture a noteworthy genre. Portraiture was believed to be a mere depiction of what you can see and did not required any particular ‘invenzione’ (invention).

However, Rubens painted dozens of portraits for his prominent customers. But the best results he had in portraiture were in the works of this show, which were not intended to be publicly exhibited. Here Rubens is less inhibited and could express himself in a more free way.

Portraits were often a side job to be done together with more important commissions. The book “Rubens in Private. The Master Portrays his Family” takes into account not only of Rubens self –portraits, but also on his household environment together with domestic staff.

On 3rd October 1609, Rubens married nineteen-year-old Isabella Brant, who was coming from an important family of Antwerp. He depicted her in renowned “The Honeysuckle Bower”.

On 6th December 1630, Rubens married the sixteen-years –old Helena Fourment from a wealth family of merchants of Antwerp. Named Het Pelsken (The Little Fur), the portrait of Helena Fourment, Rubens’s second wife, plays an important key role in the Master’s oeuvre. Due to new technical examination, the exhibition made an innovative interpretation of this portrait. Some elements, in fact, were revealed by X-radiograph to be behind the dark background of the painting, and it is unknown why they were covered and from where they come from.

A few days before his death, on 27th May 1640, Rubens drew up a will in which he stipulated d that the portraits of his two views, and the corresponding portrait of himself, were not to be sold, but were to go to the woman’s respective children.

The book “Rubens in Private. The Master Portrays his Family” has a chapter focused on clothes and fashion. Dress in early modern Europe constituted personal and community identities – and up today nothing changed. Because clothes were costly, they were also an indication of social demarcation. The Renaissance was the cradle of the contemporary fashion culture. Therefore, Rubens in his work mirrored the moment and that culture.

The last chapter of this book is about the demographic of the Spanish Netherlands. The today Belgium and Holland have seen the first ever population census taken with the parish registers. However interesting, it is unclear how this chapter is related to the art of Rubens.

Full of information, “Rubens in Private. The Master Portrays his Family” is a good book. There are chapter dedicated to the homonymous exhibition in Antwerp. Half of the book is made of formal description of each items and interpretative text, with several, footnotes, bibliography, chronology and genealogical tables of the Rubens’s family, appendix of technical examination of the paintings and other critical apparatus.

From the homonymous exhibition in Antwerp, the book “Rubens in Private. The Master Portrays his Family” is published in the UK, by Thames and Hudson, London.


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