Perhaps the most restrained of all paintings by Peter Paul Rubens—and another painting known to have been painted entirely in Rubens’s own hand—is “The Family Of Jan Brueghel The Elder”. Rubens created the painting as a gift for his close friend, one of Antwerp’s most successful artists.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
The Family Of Jan Brueghel The Elder
The Courtauld Institute Of Art, London
Oil On Canvas
50 Inches By 38 Inches
The date of the painting is a source of some dispute. The current owner of the painting, The Courtauld Institute Of Art in London, suggests that the painting was completed in 1613, which is surely an inaccurate date.
Since the painting portrays Brueghel, his second wife, Catherina Van Marienberghe, and their two oldest offspring, the painting may be dated by the apparent ages of the children. Elisabeth and Peter appear to be five and six years old, respectively, so the painting must certainly date from 1615.
“The Family Of Jan Brueghel The Elder” is one of the greatest treasures to be seen at The Courtauld. The painting overwhelms anything else displayed in the same room.
When we last saw the painting, in 2007, it overwhelmed nearby paintings by, among others, Giovanni Bellini, Anthony Van Dyck and Rembrandt Van Rijn. Nothing else in the room could compete for the viewer’s attention with “The Family Of Jan Brueghel The Elder”.
Brueghel and his family are portrayed, deliberately, as members of Antwerp’s prosperous and respectable middle class. In the painting, Rubens intended to demonstrate that artists were the social and professional equals of physicians, lawyers, notaries and courtiers—and that they were entitled to the same level of respect.
Brueghel and Catherina are attired in black, demonstrating grave dignity and respectability about their persons. In contrast, the couple’s children are dressed much more colorfully.
Brueghel hovers over his family at the back of the canvas, wearing a solemn black hat; the suggestion is that he is enveloping his family in fatherly kindness. Catherina has one hand around Peter, while her other hand meets one hand of Peter and both hands of Elisabeth. This meeting of hands occurs in the very center of the canvas and is meant to portray familial love and devotion, a parallel with “Rubens And Isabella Brant In The Bower Of Honeysuckle”.
Each member of the family is shown wearing a completely different ruff, and each member of the family is shown to possess an individual personality. Even five-year-old Elisabeth, known in life for her shyness, is portrayed as unique, the only sitter afraid to look out from the canvas, with both small hands reaching out for the protective hands of her mother.
Rubens’s portrait of this warm and loving family does more than provide posterity with its best-known image of one of the great painters of the day—it has come to represent the familial ideal of 17th-Century Flanders, a time and place known for its embrace of close family ties.
The devoted family portrayed so nobly in “The Family Of Jan Brueghel The Elder” was not to last.
A cholera epidemic struck Antwerp in 1625. Of the four Brueghel family members portrayed in Rubens’s great painting, only Catherina was to survive the outbreak.