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'Rubens in Private: The Master Portrays his Family' opens at The Rubens House
Peter Paul Rubens, ‘Self-portrait in a Circle of Friends from Mantua’, approx. 1602-1604, oil on canvas, 78 x 101 cm. Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, inv. no. Dep 248. Rheinisches Bildarchiv, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Kln, Loan of the Federal Republic of Germany.

ANTWERP.- The Rubens House is holding a unique exhibition of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) as the portrait painter of his relatives. These are the most beautiful and intimate portraits ever painted by Rubens. For Rubens in Private. The Master Portrays his Family, these stunning portraits returned to Rubens’ former home for the first time.

Michelangelo found the art of portraiture trivial and even Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), as an artist, did not immediately develop a particular fondness for the genre. Yet, Rubens was one of the best portraitists of his time. He displayed unparalleled dexterity in his portraits and was able to suggest an almost palpable sense of presence. The finest, most surprising portraits produced by Rubens were those of his close relatives, who were indeed very dear to him.

A labor of love
Rubens’ intimate portraits were never intended for public display, and are therefore significantly freer and more experimental than the commissioned portraits he made of influential figures. Nothing in these paintings seems idealized. They are rare honest works, conveying much love at the same time. While the hundreds of letters he wrote hardly tell us anything about his emotional life, the portraits of Rubens’ intimates show in a very special way how much affection he had for his first and second wife, his brother and his children. One of the unique qualities of Rubens’ family portraits from a human perspective is the role played by communication. The glances and looks give the portraits dramatic expression and life. The painter shows us almost everything he has to tell us in the gazes exchanged by people through what they and we see.

The main motivation for creating a portrait was and is the need to remember someone by. The portraits Rubens painted of his close relatives illustrate the artist’s existential need to perpetuate the memory of his loved ones on canvas. Like Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens believed that portraits preserved the beauty which would otherwise be destroyed by nature and time. For Leonardo and Rubens, however, a portrait was only a success if it showed what is typically regarded as invisible and elusive: the subject’s inner life or character.

A confident and distinguished gentleman
Although mainly concerned with providing an accurate representation and likeness, portraits usually offer more than mere resemblance; they also tell us something about the social status of the people portrayed, and the image of himself and of his family Rubens wanted to convey to the outside world. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Rubens’ phenomenal self-portraits. In them he invariably presented himself as a man of taste, a cultivated person who had learned to live with an equal measure of reason and feeling. In this Rubens fully fitted the profile of the perfect gentilhuomo from Il cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) by Baldassare Castiglione, one of the key texts of the Renaissance and a book still highly valued by today’s culture lovers. The Book of the Courtier is of great historical significance not only because Castiglione describes in it the good taste and ideals prevalent at the height of the Italian Renaissance, but also because it had a major impact on culture in other European countries. For instance, this ideal courtier was the model for the English gentleman.

Since the Renaissance, portraits of famous masters have been considered as collectibles by a relatively small elite. Already in the 1620s, the English King Charles I owned a stunning self-portrait of Rubens, and later in the 17th century, Rubens would be represented by one of his self-portraits in the no less renowned Medici collection in Florence. In ‘Rubens in Private’, these are presented together for the first time. The Self-Portrait from the Rubens House was restored in the National Gallery of London especially for the exhibition.

A parade of masterpieces
In addition to Rubens’ self-portraits , ‘Rubens in Private’ is offering a whole parade of masterpieces, such as the beautiful, meditative portrait of his beloved brother Philip, drawn and painted portraits of both his wives Isabella Brant and Helena Fourment, and portraits of his children. Isabella, who died relatively young, was Rubens’ great love and support for seventeen years. In the portraits the artist made of her, she looks at us with twinkling eyes and blushing cheeks. She looks so radiant, she almost seems to shine. One can only paint like that when one feels completely at ease with the other. Four years after Isabella’s death, Rubens married the seventeen-year-old Helena, “the most beautiful girl in Antwerp”. He experienced a second youth with her and Helena remained an important source of inspiration until his death.

Not only the nobility, everyone who could afford it would have portraits of their children, or their own portray painted. The main motive behind all these portraits was simple: to show the great pride and love of parents for their offspring. The study of the head of Rubens’ eldest daughter Clara Serena is one of the highlights of the exhibition. The portrait shows Clara at her sweetest, yet looking very spontaneous and natural. The artist concentrated all his attention on the child’s face which became the focus of the composition. Here, the viewer is confronted with a close-up which is further enhanced by the sustained gaze of the almond-shaped eyes. When Rubens painted her, Clara must have been around five years old. She died in 1623 at the age of twelve.

Almost four hundred years later, Rubens’ family portraits are still full of life. ‘Rubens in Private. The Master Portrays his Family brings together some fifty masterpieces from international museums, among which Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Uffizi in Florence, the Mauritshuis in The Hague, the British Museum in London, the Muse du Louvre in Paris, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Hermitage in Saint-Petersburg, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Albertina Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Liechtenstein Princely Collections and the British Royal Collection.

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