It would have been a noisy and busy house. One of the greatest Flemish Baroque painters lived here. The 17th century building stands at the square called Wapper, in Antwerp. Antwerp’s centre has plenty of such streets and squares with intriguing names, lined with historic buildings.
In this period home, two sets of children grew up. Rubens‘ children from his marriage to Isabella Brandt lived here. His children of his second marriage, to Helene Fourment, would have played here too.
The house would not only have been full of these youngsters and their parents. There would have been servants, friends, visitors. The master’s studio would have been full of his students and assistants, visiting fellow painters, patrons and clients.
It is odd walking its corridors, where once Rubens lived and his student Anthony van Dyck worked. Or where a painter like the Breughel discussed with Rubens, which animals would be painted in and where, on their joint version of “Adam and Eve”. It can now be admired in the Mauritshuis Museum.
Clients, patrons, friends and visitors would not only have been entertained indoors. Like present-day visitors, they would have been able to stroll in the garden. This still exists, though reduced in size.
Tickets and audio tours can be obtained in the modern building in front of the museum. This modern building also houses the museum shop. Cross the Wapper and enter through the gate. You can already see the garden at the back of the house.
The house still has its heavy wooden doors, shutters, stairs and floors which still creak. You can imagine the racket caused by Rubens and his wife walking, servants hurrying, children running and screaming through it. There can’t have been much privacy, for you hear your fellow visitors move about.
One enters the house through its gate and the left door underneath it. In the reception room, you will find a sample of the embossed leather, which was used as “wallpaper” in many rooms. It is the only bit you are allowed to touch. You will find similar “wallpaper” in the Moretus-Plantin museum and the home of Ruben’s patron, mayor Rockox. These are both museums you can visit as well.
This “wallpaper”, with its dark colours, in combination with the dark wooden floors, orange or green tiles, occasional dark panelling and indoor shutters in front of all the windows, make these houses pretty dark. The leather and wood and shutters, as well as heavy curtains in front of most doors must have helped keep the cold out though.
The ante-room leads to the delightful kitchen with lovely tiles and large fire-place. From the kitchen you visit other rooms at ground level, all decorated with period furniture and works of art.
Rubens was a serious collector and also received gifts from important clients. One of the most interesting ground floor rooms is his custom-built display room, where he exhibited his collection of antiquities.
From this purpose-built room, you find your way back to a small flight of stairs to the first floor. Once on the landing, turn left and up a few steps. You are in the main bedroom. Turn back and walk to the next bedroom.
The room contains a 17th century box-bed. This is beautifully carved, but remarkably small. People were usually smaller than we are and also slept propped upright in bed.
Next to this room, lies a linnen room where table clothes, sheets and costly cloths were apparently kept. An intriguing metal fixture is on display, which was used to create the folds of those odd millstone collars. The room also contains a beautifully carved clothes press.
Room after room follow. In one of these, there are two new acquisitions on show. One is a portrait of a Madonna which may or may not be by Rubens. The other one is a study of a man’s head. But in this case, the attribution to Rubens seems more likely.
There follow more tricky steps up and down to an attic. Under the eaves is the museum’s temporary exhibition. Take a flight of stairs to the ground floor and you are in the master’s studio with its permanent exhibition and corridor leading to the Baroque garden.
This being a period home, there are a lot of stairs and steps – and no elevator. So some parts of the museum are not suitable for all visitors. The garden and its ornaments are currently being restored. So though it can be visited, it is not displaying its full splendour.
As mentioned above, a corridor from the former studio leads to the garden and exit, as well as the museum restaurant and toilets. When I visited, it was difficult to miss the toilets. The faint smell of urine became quite strong along both the corridor to the garden and to the toilets. I hastily made for the exit into the garden and fresh air.
Museum Rubenshuis, Antwerp
Museum Moretus-Plantin, Antwerp
Rockox House Museum, Antwerp