Peter Paul Rubens, Detail from The Assumption of the Virgin, Oil on Panel, 1626
The rhythmic sound of African drums echoed through the vast interior of the Cathedral.
It was an unexpected acoustic experience, and the historical tour we’d seen advertised was looking increasingly unlikely.
There was just Vanessa and me waiting patiently at the back of the Cathedral when the tour guide arrived; she was getting extremely agitated. She hadn’t known the performance was on, the volume was too loud, a new musical set had just started, and her tension was building.
She was miffed.
But then our saviour came, a gentleman from Romania. Our tour of two had become three. We were off to the races.
I was in Antwerp (just last month) exploring Ruben’s home and studio, but nothing had prepared me for the pure brilliance of his works that lay only a few steps from our hotel lobby, hidden behind the doors of the Cathedral of Our Lady.
The Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp
Peter Paul Rubens, The Elevation of the Cross, 1610-11, Oil on panel. This triptych was originally created for the Saint Walpurga church that has since been destroyed. It was to be placed high up at the end of a series of steps and viewed from a distance.
When you’re in such a big space, it’s hard to distinguish the scale of these pieces, but they are massive. The piece above is over 4.5 meters wide by 3.5 metres when the triptych is fully open.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) specialised in altarpieces, religious and mythological scenes. As our extremely knowledgeable guide led us around the Cathedral and the story of each painting unfolded, I had a growing appreciation for the hidden symbolism and the many layers within each masterpiece.
Although huge in scale, Ruben’s paintings still maintain fantastic technical skill, and he manages to balance flow and energy throughout each painting alongside symbolic colours.
Rubens chose to become a history painter at a young age, painting scenes from the Bible. Religious painters had to understand the rules of composition and perspective as well as the story and the morals of what they were painting. He was considered the most influential Northern Baroque master of the time, his canvases filled with grandeur, richness, drama, vitality, movement and emotional tension.
Peter Paul Rubens, Detail from The Elevation of the Cross
Passionately our guide explained, we should use our five senses to enter into the story of a Rubens painting, become part of the scene, place yourself as different characters within it and ask yourself, who would you be?
Can you hear the snorting of a horse or the cry of a baby, feel the dogs fur or the fabric of the dresses, see the expression on the faces of the soldiers, smell the stormy air and taste the smoke from the torches?
She explained there’s always one figure within the painting looking directly out at you the viewer, inviting you in.
The application of the senses when viewing paintings, so popular then, is a lost art now. Where usually I would have been looking at the technical aspects of the work, our fantastic guide truly brought these paintings to life.
The Hinged Panels
For most of the year, the hinged outer panels of the triptych were closed over with two more subdued but equally beautiful paintings that would make up the ‘front’. The opening was reserved for important dates within the religious calendar to reveal the large, dramatic, colourful central panel, so make sure you sneak around the back to see the full story of the painting.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Descent from the Cross, Oil on panel, 1612–1614
Hanging opposite is another painting, The Descent from the Cross, which was designed for the Cathedral. It seemed to glow as if there was a spotlight shining on it due to the sharp contrast in the central panel where Rubens has used dramatic light and colour to focus our attention. The vibrant red of John’s cloak (who is always depicted in red) increases the tension in the piece; you can imagine the struggle of carrying someone’s weight, while precariously balancing one-foot on a wooden ladder.
This folding postcard shows the front panels from The Descent from the Cross. When the triptych is closed over the panels, tell the story of St. Christopher and the hermit with the lantern.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Assumption of the Virgin, Oil on Panel, 1626
Peter Paul Rubens, Detail from ‘Modello’ for the Assumption of the Virgin
Rubens did some fantastic contour drawings that captured the gestures of a scene, and this drawing technique would have been used to create colour sketches onto wood panel. These sketches gave his client or patron an idea of what the finished composition would look like and are known as ‘Modello’ sketches.
Above, you can see the Burnt Umber underpainting on top of a warmer ground in preparation for the stunning Altarpiece, The Assumption of the Virgin.
Peter Paul Rubens, Detail from The Assumption of the Virgin, 1626
Here is a detail of the finished painting, with the more fully developed faces and richer colours in the skin and clothes.
Loved how the marble floor had this watercolour feel to it, with the rich red drapery giving a ‘Ruben’s red’ feel to the floor. At the very top of the frame, you can make out the altarpiece.
Arriving in Antwerp
Arriving in Antwerp, you can’t help but be impressed with the amazing architectural details, here the afternoon light is just catching the top of the fantastically elaborate buildings in the main square, the Grote Markt. Between the narrow streets, you get these great reflections within the window frames.
The turquoise of the central bronze Brabo fountain shone out when the sun caught it.
Frites Atelier, now this is my sort of Atelier! Epic choice of mayonnaise and fried potatoes goodness.
The Happy Baker
Outside of a great little bakery Brood & Spelen, just off Grote Markt. At the top of the shot, you can see a lovely example of Belgium brickwork.
The happy baker! From Brood and Spelen, producing some excellent freshly baked goods.
The speciality of the house had a flan base, then a custard layer, then cream, then strawberry, finished with a glaze, mmm. Ok… I admit it; I did have a generous slice for breakfast to keep me going on the walk to Ruben’s studio.
Ruben’s House & Studio
From the sixteenth century onwards Italy had become extremely attractive for artists, so in 1600 Rubens left Antwerp for Italy. He spent the next eight years living and studying Renaissance painters such as Caravaggio, Michaelangelo and Titan, making the fullest possible use of his time. This period in Rome had a significant impact on him. It heavily influenced his future painting style with the introduction of chiaroscuro, the strong contrast between light and dark and brighter colours.
The Rubens House – The artist’s former home and studio in Antwerp which is now a museum
In 1608 Rubens returned to Antwerp and by September 1609, was appointed as a painter to the court of Archduke Albert and Isabella. Rubens had become the most sought after painter in Europe, by 1610 with his business expanding; he needed more space for his family and work, so purchased a house and a piece of land in Antwerp.
Over the years, he extended the house with his design, adding a covered semicircular statue gallery, a grand studio and a garden pavilion where he liked to take a stroll with friends, having philosophical conversations.
These improvements gave his home the air of an Italian Palazzo and reflected Rubens artistic ideals of the art of Classical Rome and the Italian Renaissance. Here he also housed his collection of paintings he admired which included Titans and classical sculptures.
At this time, such a large artist’s house, with separate living quarters, a studio and museum, was unheard of in Northern Europe.
Inside the house, I love how the open shutters allow shafts of sunshine onto the walls, spotlighting the dark interior.
The leadwork within the windows create these narrow frames to glimpse the ornamental garden below.
Now, this is how you pull off a leather wallpaper! Gilt embossed no less throughout Rubens house, framing a self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck, Oil on Canvas, 1635-1641.
The building is believed to have retained its original appearance until the mid-17th century at which point it was fundamentally altered. The portico and the garden pavilion are the only remaining original features, and the artworks that Rubens surrounded himself with are now spread out over the world.
Love these hand-painted tiles set within the fireplace.
Peter Paul Rubens, Self-portrait, Oil on canvas, 1630
Compared to his contemporary Rembrandt, Rubens painted very few self-portraits.
He produced just four, whilst Rembrandt painted around 40 but most interestingly, Rubens always portrayed himself as a self-assured and distinguished gentleman never as a painter. The self-portrait in the Rubens House above is the most informal of the four.
Rubens had many interests alongside painting; he was highly intelligent, spoke several languages and made shrewd art investments. From 1625 until 1628 he travelled around Europe as a diplomat, negotiating a peace treaty between Spain and the Netherlands and he was knighted on two occasions.
Rubens studio was the largest in Europe and most of Rubens’s works were created here
Rubens had an impressive well-organised studio with several students, assistants and colleagues who helped him produce his work. Demand had risen considerably, so assistance now became essential if he was to meet the constant flow of orders.
For a big commission, Rubens would produce a small preparatory oil sketch (Modello) often leaving the task of transferring the panel to a larger format to his assistants. Rubens input was “limited” to the figures in a painting and the final flourishes of the master.
Sometimes other painters with a particular specialisation would then complete sections of the painting. It wasn’t unusual in 17th century Antwerp for two or more artists to collaborate on a single piece. One painted the figures and the landscape while another took care of flora and fauna, Rubens collaborated on several occasions with the animal and still-life painter Fran Snyders.
Every piece that left the studio, regardless of who had worked on it, was overseen and approved by Rubens. However, if you wanted to commission Rubens to paint the entire piece, you would have to pay several times more.
The Master’s Protégé – Anthony Van Dyck
Anthony van Dyck, Self-portrait by Rubens’ protege Anthony van Dyck.
Not much is known about Rubens many assistants, but there were two standouts.
Justus van Egmont (1602-1674) was able to replicate Rubens style so skilfully that his later work was often mistaken for a real Rubens. But Rubens most famous and undoubtedly most talented assistant was an exceptionally gifted artist Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1640) a child prodigy with exceptional talents.
He started his apprenticeship in Rubens’s studio in 1617 at the age of seventeen and he mastered Rubens style so well that he often acted as a stand-in for the great master.
The above portrait of the young Van Dyck had been previously attributed to Rubens, but under recent examination proved to be in fact, a self-portrait.
He would become Rubens first serious rival in Antwerp, later working in Italy. In 1632 Van Dyck was made court painter to King Charles I in London, proving to be a brilliant portrait painter with powerful empathy and dazzling technique.
There’s a Van Dyck portrait I used to and still regularly visit in the National Gallery, London of Cornelis van der Geest. I have always been amazed at how deftly Van Dyck painted the white neck ruffle, you know when you look at something and can’t work out how it’s done? That’s the ruffle on this portrait.
A Developing Style
Peter Paul Rubens, Adam and Eve, Oil on canvas, 1598-1600
Apprentice painters learnt their trade by grinding pigments, mixing, mounting canvases and cleaning the palettes and brushes, whilst observing the master’s methods.
Rubens had three teachers in all. The most important and influential of the three was Otto van Veen. He studied languages, trained in Italy and was a great fan of the Renaissance.
Very little is known about Rubens output between 1598, the year he established himself as an independent artist and his departure for Italy in 1600. This panel of Adam and Eve is one of the few surviving paintings from that period. The use of colour mainly the cool use of green and blue is reminiscent of Van Veen.
At this stage, Rubens treatments of the figures and the landscape are rather static and precise, after his time in Italy his style became freer and his use of colour more expressive.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Annunciation, Oil on canvas, 1609
The rendering of the figures has much more realism and luminosity since Rubens returned from Italy. Using colours more reminiscent of Titian and the more fully rendered form, adding a more sculptural quality to his paintings.
Rubens’s health steadily declined and he was forced to stop painting, on 30th May 1640, he died at his home, just a month short of his 63rd birthday. Rubens and his family are buried in a chapel in Antwerp’s St. James’s Church.
A Dog of Flanders
When we were leaving the Cathedral, we asked the guide what the big sculpture outside in the square was. She explained, there is a book called A Dog of Flanders by Ouida about the inseparable bond between an orphan boy called Nello and his faithful rescue dog Patrasche, living in 19th century Belgium.
The story goes, as they were very poor Nello helped his grandfather selling milk with Patrasche pulling their cart into town each morning. Nello falls in love with the daughter a well-off man in the village, but he doesn’t want his daughter to have such a poor suitor.
Although Nello is illiterate, he is very talented in drawing. He enters a junior drawing contest in Antwerp, hoping to win the first prize, 200 francs per year. However, the jury selects somebody else – we’ve all been there!!
When his grandfather dies, Nello and Patrasche were left all alone in the world. Having nowhere to stay, Nello desperately wants to go to the Cathedral of Antwerp to see Rubens ‘The Elevation of the Cross’ and ‘The Descent of the Cross’, but the exhibition is only for paying customers, and he’s out of money.
On the night of Christmas Eve, he and Patrasche go to Antwerp finding the door to the church open, sneak inside. The next morning, the boy and his dog are found frozen to death in front of the triptych.
The book became a bestseller and a literary classic in Japan and is still taught in secondary schools today. In 1975, a Japanese television studio aired a year-long animated series, every Sunday night. More than 30 million Japanese tuned in for the heartbreaking last episode.
Many Japanese fans of Nello make a pilgrimage to Antwerp Cathedral to stand in front of Ruben’s great triptych alter piece where Nello and Patrasche died.
We left Antwerp feeling inspired by Rubens, enlightened by our Cathedral tour, saddened by Nello and overly indulged from the fantastic Belgian hospitality, Sante!
A delicious local amber pale ale made by the De Konnick brewery, although when ordering everyone uses the name ‘Bolleke’ after the bowl-shaped glass it’s served in.
p.s. One of the blog readers Nicole just let me know there is currently a show of early Rubens works in Ontario, Canada (October 12, 2019 – January 5, 2020)