A colossus unjustly ignored

Britain has never warmed to Rubens, whose finest works can be seen in Antwerp

This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In Antwerp’s royal museum of Fine Arts there is a triptych by Peter Paul Rubens which I return to time and time again. The Incredulity of Saint Thomas is one of the most iconic scenes in Christian art, yet the images which arrest the eye are the portraits on the two side panels that depict the painting’s donors: Sir Nicolaas Rockox, the Mayor of Antwerp, and his wife Adriana Perez. 

Sir Nicolaas was one of Rubens’ closest friends, and this intimate relationship is made manifest in the quality of these portraits. You feel you know these people — you feel you could step into this picture and talk to them. It’s hard to believe they lived four hundred years ago.

These portraits sum up why Antwerp is integral to Rubens’s story, and why a visit to this lively Flemish port city is essential if you want to get inside his art. Rubens spent most of his life here, he painted most of his masterpieces here, and the city boasts an unrivalled collection of his paintings. 

There are dozens of these masterworks in the Museum of Fine Arts, but there are just as many scattered around the city, in the places they were painted for. It’s here, in the houses and churches where they were meant to be displayed, rather than in any art gallery, that you discover the real Rubens — not only one of the greatest figures of Western art but one of the most misunderstood.

Rubens is a colossus of European art, but Britons have never warmed to him. To British tastes, his work seems bombastic, overblown. This is a selective point of view. By and large, the big paintings that ended up in big public galleries, in Britain and elsewhere, were vanity projects commissioned by autocratic monarchs. In Antwerp, you see another side of Rubens — portraits of his friends and family, pictures painted for his own pleasure. The private Rubens is revealed — more sympathetic, more humane.

Yet there are other reasons why Rubens is overlooked in Britain, reasons that run deeper than the flamboyant aesthetic of his larger canvases. As a painter of the Counter-Reformation, his work was antipathetic to British Protestants, but the biggest reason is that he refutes our idealistic concept of the artist as outsider — a tormented loner, toiling in a grotty garret.

This romantic ideal, personified by gloomy artists such as van Gogh, remains our template for how an artist should behave, but it’s a nineteenth-century notion and it’s not one that Rubens would have recognised. When Rubens started out, at the end of the sixteenth century, becoming an artist wasn’t a rackety act of rebellion — it was a sensible, conventional career choice.

Rubens wasn’t only an artist. He was also a shrewd businessman, a skilful diplomat, and probably a spy. He was knighted by both the kings of England and Spain. His self-portraits don’t depict him as an artist but as a wealthy nobleman. This conservative, conformist image is a world away from our contemporary idea of how an artist should present himself, but Rubens would have seen nothing odd about it. To make it as an artist was to become a member of the establishment. Is that why we don’t appreciate him? Is our lack of interest really a form of inverted snobbery?

Like a lot of successful businessmen, Rubens came from relatively humble beginnings. The sixth of seven children, he was born in 1577 in Siegen, in Westphalia, where his father had been forced to flee after impregnating the wife of William of Orange. After his father died, in 1587, his mother took him back to her hometown, Antwerp, where he went to school. Rubens received a good education at a Latin (i.e. grammar) school in Antwerp, but his father had blown the family fortune and trashed its reputation, so Rubens had to learn a trade. That trade was painting.

Rubens was apprenticed to several prominent Antwerp painters, and then went to Italy, where he was inspired by contemporary artists such as Caravaggio as well as past masters like Raphael and Michelangelo. The Italians were quick to spot his talent, and he soon became a rising star until the death of his mother, in 1608, brought him reluctantly back to Antwerp.

Rubens was loath to return home, but his timing could hardly have been better. Antwerp had just emerged from a period of fierce sectarian strife, its ornate Catholic churches had been desecrated by Calvinist iconoclasts, and Rubens was employed to redecorate them. 

For Catholicism, his euphoric paintings were the best possible PR. Yet this wasn’t just a restoration job — Rubens created something new. During his eight years in Italy, he had been profoundly influenced by Italian painters including Titian and Tintoretto, and now he brought that Mediterranean bravura back to Flanders, uniting the Northern European and South European schools of art.

Then as now, Antwerp was one of Europe’s biggest, richest ports, a centre of intellectual and creative life as well as commerce. Now the city was at peace again, after decades of bloody turmoil, its merchant classes were prospering, and Rubens became a key member of this emerging upper middle class. Much as he loved Italy, Rubens was canny enough to see that Antwerp was a better base. In Italy, he would have been one great artist among many. Here, he soon became the leader of the pack.

Antwerp was part of the Spanish Netherlands and, as Rubens’s fame spread abroad, he was recruited by the Spanish crown to broker diplomatic links with France and England. Today the idea of an artist moonlighting as a diplomat seems improbable, almost absurd, but it was quite common at that time. Leading artists had easy access to foreign courts, where they could make contacts and pick up useful information.

Courteous and discreet, Rubens was a natural diplomat, ostensibly at home in any foreign capital. In fact, it was all a front. “I have a horror of courts,” he confessed, declining an invitation to return to London. He could easily have stayed on in England, like his most talented pupil, Anthony van Dyck, but his heart was back in Antwerp. “I made the decision to force myself to cut this golden knot of ambition in order to rediscover my liberty,” he wrote. “Best of all, I should like to go home and remain there all my life.” And it is in his hometown that so much of his work remains.

The best place to begin your Rubens tour is at the Rubenshuis (top), his home and studio from 1615 until his death in 1640. Six of his eight children were born here; his first wife, Isabella, and his eldest child, Clara, both died here. This was where he created many of his most famous paintings, supported by numerous assistants (this is another way in which Rubens deviated from our modern idea of what constitutes an artist — he was the leader of a team of painters, more like a film director than a one-man band).

There are some stunning paintings here, notably his self-portrait, painted in 1630, at the peak of his powers, but the most revealing thing about this building is the architecture, rather than the contents. 

When he bought it, in 1615, it was an elegant Flemish townhouse. Rubens turned it into a mansion, adding numerous Italianate flourishes, most notably an ostentatious portico. Clearly, he wasn’t shy about showing off his status, since his house wasn’t just a home but a place for receiving rich and powerful prospective clients. Like a corporate HQ, it was built to impress.

Next stop is Antwerp’s magnificent gothic cathedral (left), which contains two of Rubens’s finest paintings: The Raising of The Cross and The Descent from the Cross. The former so passionate, the latter so bereft, they complement each other perfectly. It’s wonderful to see them in a religious setting, rather than an antiseptic gallery. 

The altarpiece, The Ascension of the Virgin, would be the star attraction in any other setting. Look out for Rubens’s discreet portrait of his first wife Isabella, who died while he was painting it. Movingly, she’s depicted standing over Mary’s empty tomb.

Remarkably, there are also numerous Rubens paintings in various churches around Antwerp. In St Paul’s, where Rubens went to confess to his favourite priest, Michael Ophovius (of whom Rubens’s portrait is in the Rubenshuis), there are three fine Rubens paintings, most notably The Flagellation of Christ (detail, left), in which Jesus turns his back on us, putting us in the position of his persecutors. Like the brilliant film director he surely would have been had he been born today, Rubens has a genius for injecting fresh drama into even the most familiar scene.

Rubens’s parish church was St James, where he worshipped every day, and married his second wife, Helena. Their children were all baptised here, and when he. died, aged 63, he was buried here. His old friend, Nicolaas Rockox, died a few months later, and was buried alongside him. 

The Rubens painting that adorns this church is especially fitting: Mary Surrounded by Saints, painted in the last years of Rubens’s life. Some scholars believe this is a portrait of Rubens and his two wives, Isabella and Helena, with Isabella as Mary, Helena as Mary Magdalene and Rubens as St George.

I finished my latest trip to Antwerp at the Rockox House, where Sir Nicolaas lived during Rubens’s day. Rubens was a frequent visitor and, 400 years later, this handsome yet understated house is still much the same. Rockox commissioned many of Rubens’s greatest works, not only the Incredulity of St Thomas (above) in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, but also The Descent from the Cross in the Cathedral, and Samson & Delilah, originally bought to hang above the mantelpiece in this house, but now hanging in London’s National Gallery. Visitors to London will be thrilled to see it there, but even though I live in London, I’d far prefer to see it in the setting for which it was intended. 

Never mind. The Rockox House still retains one great Rubens painting, his Virgin and Child, actually a portrait of his first wife, Isabella, and their son, Nicolaas, the namesake of his dear friend (Nicolaas Rockox and his wife died childless and left all their possessions to the poor). 

Rubens also died a wealthy man, and if his life has a lesson for today, it’s this: if you want to be a great artist, you don’t need to be a rebel, you don’t need to shock or startle. You simply need to perfect your craft.

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