Legacy The home of legendary artist Rubens, designed by him, is a treasure trove of artefacts. Aruna Chandaraju
Antwerpians love to emphasise the fact that their city may be the diamond capital of the world but it is not all about commerce. Most Belgians will also tell you that Antwerp, is also a richly artistic place of great antiquity.
Antwerp traces its origins to a Gallo-Roman civilisation and excavations near the Scheldt have unearthed glass fragments and pottery shards dating back to the 2nd -3rd century.
There is the Cathedral of Our Lady, a Gothic masterpiece; the ornate St James Church; and Grote Market with the Brabo statue, apart from the splendid MAS museum, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Middelheim Sculpture Museum and the Church of St. Paul with impressive baroque interiors.
The Zurenborg Neighbourhood is remarkable for its varied and aesthetic architecture. Also, Tomorrow Land is the world’s largest electronic dance music festival that takes place annually near Antwerp at Boom village in July.
And then there is the Rubenshuis. This fabulous former home and studio of legendary artist Peter Paul Rubens, widely regarded as one of the world’s all-time great painters, is now a museum. It is considered one of the most renowned residences in the world. Thousands of art-lovers throng the building every month to see the scores of paintings by Rubens and his collaborators, students, assistants, and contemporaries; the objects from Rubens’ own collection, and also the period furniture and everyday implements some of which are believed to have been used by him.
One reaches the museum braving the snowflakes and stepping gingerly over the ice––in clothes and footwear equipped for springtime Europe. One is told that this freak cold weather in March-end, which is usually early spring, is an unusual phenomenon that has occurred after decades. Well, travel is often about surprises––some unpleasant and some very pleasant like the historic building one has arrived at.
Designed by Rubens
The other distinction of this building is that it was designed by Rubens. The Italian-palazzo includes a big portico and a large interior courtyard, which opens out into a spacious Baroque-style garden. Of course, restoration work over the years has resulted in alterations but the work and spirit of Rubens live on in this historic spot of Antwerp.
In the studio area are many stunningly beautiful works. The story goes that Rubens would draft the painting in oil on a small canvas and often leave the transfer to a larger canvas as well as certain sections to his assistants while he would execute the figures, and do the finishing job. It was under his overall supervision that the work would be done. Making copies of originals was also part of the studio work.
However, everything which was created here, finally, carried both the stamp of the master and the resulting price tag too---a heavy one considering that his name commanded much respect even in those days. An original work and one created entirely by the master in every detail, was very expensive. Rubens was known to be a good businessman as much as an artist.
The Art Room is another highlight of Rubenshuis. The visitor can see items collected by Rubens such as an antique sculpture (he loved to collect these) of Adam and Eve, a number of busts including a marble one believed to be of Roman philosopher Seneca, a tazza (shallow drinking dish) and many small objects such as coins, fossils, gemstones and so on. The Rubenshuis also has a small and beautiful portrait of his wife Helene Fourment (whom he married at the age of 53 when she was 16) by an unknown artist. In a city full of prosperous citizens who had their own collections, Rubens’ was the biggest in Antwerp during his time.
The big draw of the high-ceiling Rubens House is his self-portrait in the dining room. Especially because Rubens, unlike his famous counterpart Rembrandt, painted very few of these, just four - one is informed. The work is dated 1630 and shows him as a distinguished gentleman––he enjoyed a high social status. Another important work by the master is that of Adam and Eve in Paradise. There is another prominently displayed Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry.
Another major work of Rubens is the Annunciation or the depiction of the momentous moment when Mary is told by Archangel Gabriel that she will be the mother of Jesus Christ. Yet another precious work by Rubens displayed here is that of St. Clare of Assisi.
The displays are well-arranged and the labels are reader-friendly. The collection is often enhanced by short- and long-term loans from private collections. Many of Rubens’ works can be seen in other parts of Belgium as also in famous museums around the world.
The story goes that Rubens would draft the painting in oil on a small canvas and often leave the transfer to a larger canvas as well as certain sections to his assistants while he would execute the figures, and do the finishing job.