Rubens rediscovered

Two portraits almost unknown to the public, painted by Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen, 1577 – Antwerp, 1640), were offered for sale at the well-known art auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, with the occasion of Big Masters sale in July 2018: The portrait of Clara Serena, artist’s daughter and the Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman. Even that Rubens has been a very skilled portraitist painter, he didn’t paint too many portraits; Ben van Beneden, a specialist in Rubens’ work is estimating that from the total of one thousand five hundred art pieces created by Rubens during his lifetime only ninety to one hundred works were portraits. In the complete works’ catalogue of Peter Paul Rubens published by Michael Jaffé in 1989, were listed one thousand four hundred and three pieces without taking in consideration the copies done by the artist’s in his workshop in Antwerp.

The Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman estimated at three-four million pounds

The two masterpieces, new arrivals on the art market, have been very closed to the heart of the artist. The Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman was estimated at three-four million pounds, on the 4th of July, 2018, the painting was adjudicated at almost five point five million pounds at Sotheby’s, in London. According to the painting’s act of origin, it has been the property of Rubens, until his death in 1640. It is an unusual thing for a portrait, not to be in the collection of the person who ordered it. In the painting, we can see an unknown person and it’s assumed that Rubens had realized the painting for his own pleasure without a real model. Rubens had created the portrait using a technique close to the painting style of Titian or Tintoretto. „It doesn’t matter if it’s considered a portrait or a head study, the work is rare by the concentrated, energetic and direct manner in which was realized”, declared George Gordon, vice president of The Old Masters Department (painting and drawing) at Sotheby’s.


Peter Paul Rubens, The Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman – 59 x 48 cm. © Sotheby’s

The Portrait of Rubens’ Daughter

Estimated at three-five million pounds, The Portrait of Clara Serena, artist’s daughter wasn’t adjudicated in the 5th of July, 2018 auction at Christie’s, London. In the history of tracking of this Rubens’s art piece, we can find out that the painting was bought in 2013 from Sotheby’s, New York, for a price of $626,500.00 and was attributed to a disciple of Rubens. The research was done from that time until this year drove to the conclusion that the portrait has been painted by the artist himself, a little earlier before the death of his twelve years old daughter, in the fall of 1623. Jan Brant, Rubens’ father in law and Clara Serena’s grandfather was the first owner of this painting.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Portrait of Clara Serena, artist’s daughter – 36,2 x 26,4 cm. © Christie’s

The Flemish art in 17th century

Painter, humanist and diplomat at the most prestigious European courts Peter Paul Rubens was, with Jan Bruegel the Oldest (1568-1625), one of the important leaders of the Flemish artistic world in the first decades of the 17th Century. Rubens was specialized in church’s murals, portraits, landscapes and historical paintings, when Bruegel was painting mythological, historical and gender scenes, seascapes, still lives, and country life paintings.

In 1598, Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella have been crowned on the throne of Netherlands and the meaning of their coronation was for the country a period of prosperity and peace, going to a revival of the commercial and artistic life in Antwerp. By installing their Court in Brussels, they instituted a policy of patronage which was copied by other European Royal Courts. The large numbers of artistic commissions by the Royal Family contributed to the development of the Flemish Baroque and to the fame of the Royal Court’s painters.

Antwerp – the European capital of art

Rubens’ workshop in Antwerp was well known in Europe because here were produced paintings which were exported to Italy and Spain. It was a prosperity epoch in the history of the Netherlands when the demand for the artwork was so high that sometimes the paintings were paid for before they were produced. One of the most enthusiastic Flemish art collectors besides the King Filip the fourth of Spain (1605-1665), has been the Marquis of Leganés (1580-1655). He was buying in special the Rubens’ paintings (twenty-one artworks) and, he was an intermediate between King Filip the fourth of Spain and the artist. The fact that some art pieces were first mentioned in the Kings’ collection was showing that it was done by art commission and were painted in Rubens’ workshop in Antwerp. The Marquis of Leganés, who has met Rubens in 1625 was considered by the artist as one of the most important connoisseurs of that time (Crawford Volk, 1980: 256). Showing a fine taste for Flemish art, The Marquis of Leganés has played a very important role in the appreciation and export of Flemish art at Sevilla’s Court.

Collecting art in 17th century

Harmen Becker from Amsterdam has been another art collector who had artworks by Peter Paul Rubens. This was a 17th century loan shark (geldschieter), real estate developer and shipping trade businessman. He was a real pawnbroker for the artists, who could pawn their future artworks for different amounts of money. (Hook, 2017: 31) Pawning artworks has been a very frequent way to borrow money in that time. Harmen Becker was not giving money to all the artists, he has chosen the ones whose artworks didn’t lose any value over time. The idea of art investment was starting to be defined. In 1678, when he had passed away, he left behind the most important Flemish art collection of his time, exactly 231 artworks: landscapes, animal scenes, the genre scenes, still live, religious scenes. Among the artists from his collection were Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Lievens the Older, Jan Lievens the Younger, Philips Koninck, Frederick de Moucheron, representatives of French School (Claude Lorrain) and old German masters (Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein). (North, 1997: 119-128) In the Becker collection there have been three paintings by Rubens, probably bought directly from the artist, through his workshop which had a lot of commissioned artworks from different European Royal Courts, why he wasn’t in need to pawn his paintings to keep his business going.


Rubens House in Antwerp 

Peter Paul Rubens has been a very popular artist even in his lifetime; his style was copied by Guillam Forchondt the Older and painters from his Antwerp’s workshop who did copies of his art pieces and of other artists, such as Jan Bruegel, Antoon van Dyck or David Teniers the Younger. In 17th century, on the international art market, there was a high demand for these masters’ artworks. Today, the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp has a lot of paintings done by Peter Paul Rubens, and in Rubens House, in Antwerp, the visitor can discover „a brilliant and versatile artist”.


Michael North, Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 1997

Philip Hook, A History of Art and its Dealers, Baroque Books and Arts, 2017;

Mary Crawford Volk, „New Light on a Seventeenth-Century Collector: The Marquis of Leganés”, in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 62, Nº 2. (June 1980).

Author: Silvia Suciu

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