Peter Paul Rubens and Isabella Brant

Honeysuckle Bower by Rubens (c.1609)
The Honeysuckle Bower by Rubens (c.1609)

This painting, which is housed in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich is entitled The Honeysuckle Bower and was painted by Rubens the year he married Isdabella Brant.  It is a full-length double portrait of the happy couple who have the honeysuckle bower as the backdrop.  The honeysuckle symbolises devoted affection and is a symbol of love and generosity and this is a loving portrait of the couple as they sit hand-in-hand in the shade afforded to them by the bower.   Rubens has depicted himself as an elegant and chivalrous husband relaxing, legs crossed, perched atop of a balustrade.  He looks over his wife from his high position.  He looks thoughtful but at peace with his world.    His beloved wife sits close to him on a grassy bank, at a slightly lower level.  She is wearing a brocade bodice and a dark red skirt.  There is a ruff around her neck and atop her head is a Florentine hat.   Both husband and wife lean slightly towards each other in another sign of affection.  Life is good for them both and this is symbolised by the flourishing flora which we see all around them.  Life just couldn’t be better!

In my last couple of blogs I looked at the artistic collaboration between Rembrandt von Rijn and his wife Saskia von Uylenburg and later the artistic collaboration with his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels.   In my next two blogs I want to look at the artistic partnership between artist/model, husband/wife,  of the great Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens and his two wives.  Today I will tell you a little about Rubens’ early life and examine portraits which depicted his first wife Isabella Brant.  In the following blog I will show some of his works featuring his second wife, Hélène Fourment.

Peter Paul Rubens was born in Siegen in Germany in June 1577.  He was one of seven children of his father Jan Rubens, who was an Antwerp lawyer, and his mother Maria Pypelinckx.   Jan Rubens was a practicing Calvinist and because of his strong Protestant beliefs the family were persecuted during the Catholic rule of the Spanish Netherlands under the Duke of Alba.  For their own safety Jan, Maria and their family left Antwerp in 1568 and travelled to Cologne.  Whilst there, Jan Rubens acted as a legal adviser to Anna of Saxony, the second wife of William the Silent, Prince of Orange.  Their close business relationship culminated in an adulterous affair and Anna gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Christina.  Her husband banished her and her daughter Christina to Beilstein Castle.  Their marriage was annulled in 1571.   As a result of his affair, Jan Rubens was incarcerated in Dillenburg prison for two years.   His wife must have been very forgiving for it was through her constant pleading to the authorities that her errant husband was released but exiled to the town of Siegen.   It was whilst the family was staying in Siegen that Maria gave birth to her sons, Filips and Peter-Paul.  In May 1578 Jan and his family had their Siegen exile rescinded and they returned to Cologne where Jan Ruben died in March 1587, when Rubens was ten years of age.  Jan Rubens was buried in the Church of Saint Peter in Cologne and for one to understand the love Maria had for her wayward husband one has just to look at an inscription she had carved on the headstone of the grave.  It read:

“…Sacred to the Memory of Jan Rubens, of Antwerp, who went into voluntary exile and retired with his family to Cologne, where he abode for nineteen years with his wife Maria, who was the mother of his seven children. With this his only wife Maria he lived happily for twenty-six years without any quarrel. This monument is erected by said Maria Pypelings Rubens to her sweetest and well-deserved husband…”

In 1589, aged twelve, Rubens went back to Antwerp with his mother and siblings, where he was brought up in the Catholic religion.   Rubens attended a Latin school in Antwerp where he was taught both Latin and Greek and studied classical literature.  He also became proficient in English, Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch and German.  At the age of thirteen he became a court page to a noble-woman, Marguerite de Ligne, Countess of Lalaing. It was an important position for one so young and it gave him a taste of court life and life in noble and court circles.  The Countess, who had no children, used to refer to herself as his “other mother,” and gave him all the attention that was possible.   Rubens’ life at the court was split between school work which was given to him by a Jesuit priest in the mornings, while in the afternoons another priest would come in order to teach the ladies of the court foreign languages and young Rubens was always present during these lessons.   After a year at court, his mother had him return to the family home.   His mother wanted the best for him and thought that her son would be best served if he should have a career in the Church but was also mindful of the stories relating to the great Italian artists and the power they wielded due to their connections with their country’s leaders and so she and her son settled on the idea that he should become a painter.  His early artistic tuition came when he worked for three leading Flemish painters of the time, the landscape painter, Tobias Verhaecht, the Mannerist, Adam van Noort, and the Latin scholar and classically educated humanist painter Otto van Veen, sometimes referred to by his Latin name, Octavius Vaenius.   Following a four year apprenticeship, Rubens, in 1598 aged twenty-one, was accepted as a Master in the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke, the city’s painters’ guild and this allowed him to work independently and receive pupils.

Portrait of Isabella Brant by Rubens (c.1620-5)
Portrait of Isabella Brant by Rubens (c.1620-5)
Cleveland Museum of Art

In 1600, Rubens travelled to Italy. His first stop-over was Venice where he encountered the paintings of the triumvirate of Venetian Masters, Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto.  From there he moved on to Mantua where he received painting commissions at the court of Duke Vincenzo I of Gonzaga who had seen his artistic work when he had visited Venice.  Thanks to financial backing from the Duke he was able to journey to Florence, stopping off at Rome.  In Florence he came into contact with the works of art of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio.  He was also impressed and greatly influenced by the works of Caravaggio.   The Duke of Mantua had asked Rubens to make copies of some of Raphael’s works and bring them back to the court.     Rubens returned to the Mantua court and in 1603 he was sent on the first of many diplomatic missions, this one to the court of Philip III in Madrid, bearing gifts from the Gonzagas.  Now living at the court in Madrid he was able to examine the extensive collection of art work which the ruler’s father, Philip II had amassed, including numerous works by Raphael and Titian.  Rubens remained in Madrid for a year before returning once again to Mantua.  He was soon on his travels again, visiting Rome and Genoa.

In 1608, whilst in Rome, Rubens received a letter from his family telling him that his mother Maria was gravely ill.  He immediately left Italy and unbeknown to him, he would never return to that country.  He set off for Antwerp but sadly his mother passed away before he reached her.   Although Rubens was keen to return to Italy he received an offer he couldn’t refuse.   In September 1609, Rubens was appointed the court painter by Archduke Albert VII, the Archduke of Austria and Governor General of the Hapsburg Netherlands and his wife and consort, the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia.  It was not just as a painter that the rulers had employed him but for his talent as a diplomat and ambassador.   His recompense for such a position was a salary of 500 livres plus all the perks that came with the job of somebody working in the royal household.  Another benefit was that he was exempt from all the regulations and bureaucracy arising from the regulations of the guild of St Luke.

Isabella Brandt by Rubens (c.1626) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Isabella Brandt by Rubens (c.1626)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The Portrait of Isabella Brandt, which is housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was completed by Rubens around 1625.  It is one of a number of portraits of his wife that he completed during their seventeen years together.  It is a half-length portrait against the dark background of a red curtain and a column.  Isabella smiles out at us.  It is an engaging yet hesitant smile.  This portrait of his wife is considered to be one of Rubens’ masterpieces of portraiture.  In 1705, the painting, along with others, was donated by the Palatine Elector of the Rhine, Johann Wilhelm, to his brother-in-law, Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici.  Of the Rubens portrait of his wife, Ferdinando wrote to his brother-in-law:

 “…it surpasses the imagination and is a prodigy of that famous brush…”

Rubens, although at the royal court in Brussels, was also allowed to set up his own studio in Antwerp and it was whilst in Antwerp that he met and married Isabella Brant.  Isabella, who was fourteen years younger than her husband, was the daughter of Jan Brant, an important Antwerp city official, and Clara de Moy.  The wedding took place on October 3rd 1609 in Saint Michael’s Abbey, Antwerp and in 1610, they moved into a new house and studio that he designed.  This Italian-styled villa in the centre of Antwerp , which is now the Rubenshuis museum, was designed by Rubens and also housed his workshop, where he and his apprentices worked on various works of art. One of his most famous apprentices was Anthony van Dyck, who would later become the leading Flemish portraitist of the time and both Master and pupil collaborated frequently on works of art.  Other collaborators with Rubens were the animal and still-life painter Frans Snyder and Jan (Velvet) Brueghel the Elder the flower painter and son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.   Rubens and his wife went on to have three children, a daughter Clara Serena and two sons, Nikolas and Albertus.

Portrait sketch of Isabella Brandt by Rubens (c.1621)
Portrait sketch of Isabella Brandt by Rubens (c.1621)

My final offering is a portrait drawing of Isabella Brant completed by her husband around 1621 and which is held at the British Museum.   This portrait of Rubens’s first wife, Isabella Brant is drawn in coloured chalks with a pale brown wash and white heightening.   The artist used the red chalk in an effort to highlight the warm flesh of his wife’s face and ears. Again a subtle hatching using both red and black chalks he has cleverly produced the shadows on her face. The sketch concentrates on Isabella’s head and face and her shoulders and the high collar of her dress have just been sketched as a sort of afterthought.  Isabella smiles at us, as she no doubt smiled at her husband as he sketched her.  She has a radiant smile which somehow gives us the impression she would have been a likeable person to have met.  Her marriage to Rubens was one of love and mutual respect and her death due to the plague in 1626, at the age of 35, deeply saddened him.  In Ruth Saunders Magurn’s  collection of translated letters of Rubens, entitled The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens, she highlights the extent to which Rubens mourned the death of Isabella in an extract from a letter he wrote to his friend, the French scholar, Pierre Dupuy, dated July 15th 1626, a little over three weeks after Isabella died.   Of his late wife, Rubens wrote:

“…Truly I have lost an excellent companion, whom one could love – indeed had to love, with good reason – as having none of the faults of her sex.   She had no capricious moods, and no feminine weaknesses, but was all goodness and honesty…”

I think it is a delightful sketch but not everybody agrees.     In Jeremy Wood’s 1998 book entitled Some Early Collectors of Rubens Drawings in England, he quotes a one-time owner of the sketch, the notable portrait painter and art theorist, Jonathan Richardson, who described Rubens’ sketched portrait of his wife:

“…[her] face is one of the most disagreeable I have ever seen and I am sure it is more so than was necessary for the likeness, however ugly she really was…”

 I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder !!!

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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