Antwerp is often overlooked, visitors to north-west Europe gravitating to its more celebrated cousins of Paris and Amsterdam. It is, however, a treasure-trove of history, classic Flemish architecture and art, and all in a relatively small area; Antwerp is an ideal walking city. It was, for much of his life, the home of Peter Paul Rubens. He loved the city so much that he built his own home here and that is now open to the public. It’s called, unsurprisingly, Rubenshuis.
Rubens was born in Germany, but from the age of 10 he lived in Antwerp. In those days it was the Spanish Netherlands. His first job, at the age of 13, was as court page to a countess, but the boy didn’t take to that rigid formality and began training as an artist.
As soon as he had completed his artistic schooling, he moved to Italy in order to view great Renaissance and classical works. For many years he worked in Spain, but in 1608 news came that Rubens’s mother was dying. His mother passed away before he reached Antwerp, but Rubens decided to stay there. In 1609 he was appointed court painter to the rulers of the Netherlands, the Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella, and he also married his first wife who was also called Isabella.
A year after marrying, Rubens began work on an Italian-style villa on the then-Vaartstraat. That street is now called Wapper. He incorporated all the elements for a perfect home and work space. The plan included his family abode, studio, and a beautiful interior courtyard. The courtyard opens into a Baroque garden that Rubens also planned.
The very fabric of the house speaks of its owner. Rubens was not only an artist but a well-travelled diplomat and a linguist. The family rooms are intimate and on a human scale. These days the walls are hung with Rubens paintings and sketches and those of his contemporaries, but one has the sense that this must have been a comfortable home for Rubens, his wife and children, and fascinating for their influential visitors – they would likely have come to view Rubens’ collection of international curios and art.
The studio was just as essential as the home. Rubens established a workshop to meet the demands of his large commissions from across Europe. His commissioned works were mostly ‘history paintings’ of religious scenes and mythological adventures, many of which depict well-padded women with alabaster-white skin. He painted portraits of friends and the noteworthy in their finery; he also painted self-portraits.
In 1625 the plague, which had worked its way up through Europe, arrived in Antwerp. Rubens, fearing for his family, moved them to Brussels. But when they returned to Antwerp Isabella died, probably of the plague that they had tried to avoid. Rubens was overcome with shock and grief at this loss.
The city bought the house in 1937 and after an extensive restoration the Rubenshuis was opened to the public in 1946. The permanent collection contains a large number of works by Rubens and by contemporaries. The museum also has works on loan, as well as recent acquisitions.
Visitors to the Rubenshuis enter from the street through the main gate into the striking portico. The garden is right in front and it is tranquil and calm on a sunny day. The garden’s design is based on Rubens’ painting ‘Strolling in the Garden’. This is where Rubens’ children could play in isolation from the frenetic city outside their doors.
Rubenshuis is a must-see in Antwerp. It will be enjoyed by the whole family. It isn’t a huge space, so younger members of the party won’t get bored. Gardeners will appreciate the central open space, and lovers of the Dutch masters will be in their artistic element.
The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., except on Mondays. The museum is, exceptionally, open on Easter Monday and Whit Monday. Last admission 30 minutes before closing.
Closed on Monday
Phone: +32 3 201 15 55
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Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018