An Antwerp family reunion – a very special exhibition

He was a diplomat, as well as a very talented artist. He married twice and portrayed not only the mighty and wealthy of his time, but also friends and family members. His house still exists. You can visit it in Antwerp and the next few months, it hosts a very special exhibition.

This weekend, the new temporary exhibition “Rubens in private” opens in the Rubenshuis. It shows portraits of the master himself, his friends, his family members – painted by Rubens himself. This exhibition runs from the 28th of March till the 28th of June and is expected to draw large crowds.

The exhibition is situated on the house’s first floor. As this home is a historic Baroque building, most rooms are small and not all are easily accessible. If rooms become too crowded, access will be monitored and restricted. So the museum advises you to book your ticket in advance through their website (scroll down).

What makes this such a special exhibition is not the fact, that these portraits are reunited in a place where they were created. Nor that they come from all over the world: like the Louvre, the St Petersburg Hermitage, the British Museum, or the Uffizi – to name a few museums.

No, these portraits were not ordered. They were not painted to please and delight rich customer, important clients, European power-brokers. Rubens, who apparently loathed painting portraits, painted these for pleasure. So this exhibition not only shows great works of art. It shows works created out of love, appreciation, esteem, friendship.

What captured my imagination most, were two portraits of Clara Serena. The oil portrait from the Liechtenstein Collection, shows her as a chubby five-year-old. Her hair is a bit unruly, one of her cheeks shows a hint of a dimple, she seems to suppress a naughty giggle. Her parents, Peter Paul Rubens and his first wife Isabella Brant, must have loved her dearly.

There is also a later portrait. The colours are subdued and the chubby face is pinched and drawn. The eyes are huge. The Metropolitan Museum owned it. However, after research concluded it had been created by a student – rather than Rubens himself – the museum put it up for sale. Not that this means such a work can then be “bought for nought”. (Read the “sleeper” and “rediscovered” articles by mr Grosvenor, Art History News.)

After the auction, more research was done and experts agreed the portrait was by Peter Paul Rubens after all. So Clara Serena was painted by her father again, when she was about twelve years old. The remaining mystery now is: did he paint her when he was aware she was ill and dying? Or did he paint her from memory; perhaps starting even a few hours, or just days after her death? Or were father and daughter totally unaware of a looming disaster?

Of course, there are happier portraits of other family members and friends. There are portraits of Isabella Brandt, as well as of Rubens’ second wife, Hélène Fourment. There are individual portraits, studies, group portraits – about fifty in all – to be admired.

This exhibition introducing you to the Rubens family, is truly one you shouldn’t miss. For what can be more wonderful, than viewing all these private mementoes in the place where they were created and where they belong? The home, where once these people worked, talked, bickered, played, shared meals, or walked in its Baroque garden – in Antwerp’s lovely historic town centre.

Don’t forget there are special events like guided walks being organised, linked to this Rubens exhibition. Antwerp also has a lot of other interesting museums, like the former home of Rubens friend and patron, mayor Rockox. So if you’re going to visit this temporary exhibition, don’t forget to have a look at the Antwerp Tourist Office website (scroll down) to help you plan your stay.

Website Rubenshuis museum. Please note that due to this special exhibition, normal ticket prices have changed.
Website Rockox museum. (Where the famous Agnes Sorel portrait may still be exhibited.)
Antwerp Tourist Information website.

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