The Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder by Peter Paul Rubens

The Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder by Rubens (c.1615)

My Daily Art Display for today is The Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder painted by Peter Paul Rubens circa 1613-15 and now hangs in the Courtauld Gallery, London.  He was a close friend of Jan Brueghel the Elder.  In the painting we have Jan with his second wife Catherina van Marienberghe and their children Pieter who was born in 1608 and Elizabeth who was born a year later.  For a family portrait it is unusual that the mother should be the central and most dominant of all the figures present.   It is thought that the original idea of the portrait was to be just that of Catherine and her two children and that Jan was missing from early copies but added, somewhat unsymmetrically in an otherwise balanced composition later.   All are dressed as if they were members of Antwerp’s wealthy and highly regarded middle class and maybe this was Rubens’ idea to establish that artists were on an equal social and professional footing to the likes of physicians, lawyers and bankers. 

Father and mother are dressed in black adding a certain amount of gravitas to the parents unlike the children who are dressed much more colourfully.  Jan, with his kindly features, is dressed soberley with a tall black hat enfolding his family with his outstretched left hand and in turn Catherina, the loving mother and wife, has one hand around her son, Peter can be seen touching his mother’s precious bracelet, probably a betrothal gift, as if to draw attention to it.   Catherina’s other hand clasps the delicate fingers of her daughter, Elisabeth who is gazing lovingly at her mother. This meeting of hands occurs in the very centre of the canvas and is intended to portray familial love and devotion.  The way in which the family are depicted in the painting, almost in a huddle, emphasises the closeness of the family.

This is a very touching family portrait with its unusual intimacy.  Sadly such family love and happiness was to be devastated ten years later, in 1625, when a cholera epidemic struck Antwerp and of the four people in the picture, only Catherine survived.