Clara Serena remains at home

Enjoyed the recent temporary exhibition at the Rubenshuis, Antwerp? Many portraits of Rubens’ family members, who actually lived in the house, were brought together again for this exhibition in their former home. Most of these portraits were sold through the ages and are now the property of museums, or private collectors.

By now, the portraits have returned to their present owners. There is, however, some good news. The most popular of the exhibition’s portraits, will remain “at home”.

Its present owner will kindly loan this painting to the Rubenshuis Museum for an indefinite period, thus ensuring visitors can continue to admire it. It is of course, the Clara Serena 1portrait of Rubens’ first daughter Clara Serena.

It is not the early portrait of Clara Serena, showing a bubbly, chubby young girl aged about four or five. It is the more haunting portrait of Clara Serena, about thirteen years old. When the temporary exhibition opened, this painting had just been attributed to Clara Serena’s father. Earlier, it was taken for a study by one of Ruben’s many pupils.

The story behind the portrait is haunting and touching. Rubens painted his daughter either on her deathbed, or shortly after she died in 1623. (See “A Painter’s Home“) The illness which killed her, may also have robbed Rubens of his wife.

Not much is known about Clara Serena. She was born about two years after her father and his first wife, Isabella Brant, were married. Clara Serena was baptised in March 1611.

There seems to be a drawing in Vienna, of a lady-in-waiting at the court of the then governors of what is now Belgium. It contains a note that the drawing is Clara Serena and that she works as a lady-in-waiting for the Habsburg Archduchess Isabella. You may raise an eyebrow and wonder about Clara Serena being a lady-in-waiting at such an early age. However, it seems Rubens himself worked as a page at the court of another aristocratic lady, when he was only thirteen.

If the drawing is indeed Clara Serena, she may not have been a lady-in-waiting for long. When exactly she died, is unknown. As the exhibition showed, Rubens corresponded with many people. He Clara Serena 2must have mentioned the death of Clara Serena in a letter to a friend or client. Rubens’ letter from 1623 no longer exists, but mister Fabri de Peiresc wrote a response to Rubens, in which he offers his condolences a the death of Ruben’s only daughter.

All that remains of Clara Serena, are the two very different portraits. They clearly are portraits of the same child, but what a difference there is. One shows such a happy, healthy, bubbling child which has something impish like her mother. The other portrait shows a sick, possibly even already dead girl, painted by a father who must have been grief-stricken.

To plan your visit to the Rubenshuis Museum in Antwerp.

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