Simeon Encounters Antwerp

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Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) has been off on his travels once again. Having caught the travel bug on his trip to Amsterdam in 2018, Simeon could not wait to go on another trip abroad. This March, our fluffy little friend braved the Eurostar for his second holiday on foreign soil and he is eager to tell you all about it. So, here it is, Simeon’s review of a city like no other: Antwerp.

Antwerp is a city in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium. Also known as Anvers in French, it is the most populous city in the country and lies approximately 25 miles north of the capital city Brussels. Situated on the River Scheldt, the Port of Antwerp is one of the biggest in the world, ranking second in Europe, Rotterdam in the Netherlands coming first.

Having travelled over 200 miles via Eurostar and train, Simeon got his first glimpse of Antwerp after emerging from the Premetro at the Groenplaats. The Groenplaats or ‘Green Place’ is one of Antwerp’s most prominent squares located in the heart of the city’s historic district. Ironically, there is nothing green about the cobblestoned square on top of an underground car park surrounded by cafes. The name stems from the cemetery that stood on the site until the 18th-century when Emperor Joseph II (1741-90) abolished cemeteries inside the city walls.

For Simeon, the first glimpse of Antwerp was rather overwhelming, having emerged from the underground to a world surrounded by Baroque buildings, an impressive cathedral and a Hilton hotel. In all the excitement, our little friend almost missed the bronze statue of Antwerp’s famous painter standing in the centre!

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In 1843, a crucifix that once stood in the Groenplaats was replaced by a statue of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) who lived in Antwerp from 1587 until his death in 1640. By far the most celebrated artist in the city, the statue was commissioned in 1840 in honour of the bicentennial of Rubens’ death. The sculptor, Willem Geefs (1805-83), depicted the bearded artist standing with his paint palette and distinguished hat at his feet. Although some critics complained that the statue appeared to be discarding his artistic emblems on the floor, Geefs’ intention was for Rubens to be remembered as a human being rather than the most influential artist of Flemish Baroque tradition.
Rubens is not the only notable statue in the city; around the corner in the Grote Markt with its back to the Stadhuis van Antwerpen (city hall) is the Brabofontein, which tells a legendary tale from the Middle Ages. Simeon, a lover of fairytales, was enchanted to discover the story behind the intriguing statue.

Once upon a time, let’s say 2000 years ago, Antwerp was only a small settlement in the Roman empire, however, it was under threat from a huge giant of Russian descent. (Cue Simeon gasping) Druon Antigoon, as he was called, had built a large castle along the River Scheldt and was demanding a toll from every ship that wanted to pass by. Unfortunately, not everyone was rich enough or willing to hand over half of their cargo, which angered the giant. As a punishment, Druon Antigoon cut off the hands of sailors who refused to pay and threw them into the river. (Cue Simeon quaking in fear)

One day, a Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo was sailing along the river when he came upon the giant’s fortress. “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of an Italian man,” shouted Druon Antigoon. (Simeon added that bit) Just as he had done with all the previous sailors, the giant demanded Brabo to give him half of the ship’s cargo. Brabo refused but before the giant could chop off his hands, Brabo challenged him to duel. (Cue Simeon’s hair standing on end)

Brabo rushed at Druon Antigoon with his sword held high, (Cue Simeon covering his eyes) and just like in the poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll the vorpal blade went snicker-snack! Brabo chopped off the giant’s head and hand and threw them both into the river for good measure. Thus, Antwerp was saved from the giant and they all lived happily ever after. (Cue Simeon cheering)

Regardless of the accuracy of this myth – who knows, there could be an element of truth – according to Dutch etymology, the city’s name Antwerpen was derived from this event. The name is made up of two Flemish words: (h)ant” (hand) and “werpen” (launch), which allude to Brabo throwing Druon Antigoon’s hand into the river. Other etymologists, or spoilsports as Simeon calls them, maintain that Antwerp is a combination of “anda” (at) and “werpum” (wharf), regarding its location on the River Scheldt.

The legend of Brabo is very symbolic in Antwerp, particularly after the temporary downfall of the city in the 18th-century. In 1585, Dutch authorities closed the River Scheldt, requiring a toll from any passing boat. As a result, the city began to diminish in size until it lost its status as one of the world’s largest and most powerful cities. Recalling the legend of Brabo and the giant, the Dutch finally stopped demanding tolls in 1863 and the city began to grow once more.

As a reminder of the near ruin of the city, local sculptor Jef Lambeaux (1852-1908) presented the city council with a design for a new fountain celebrating the reopening of the river. The fountain portrays Brabo throwing the giant’s hand in the river. Brabo stands on top of a column decorated with water spouting sea animals, mermaids and a dragon-like monster. Druon Antigoon’s body and head lie at the bottom.

The fountain was inaugurated in 1887 and is turned on every summer with water spurting out from the various elements of the statue. Since it was March, the fountain was not in operation, which was just as well because Simeon had found a comfy place to sit on the rocks surrounding the base of the fountain!

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Simeon’s favourite statue in Antwerp is a fairly recent addition. Titled Nello and Patrasche, a sculpture of a boy and a dog lying on the ground partially covered by a blanket of cobblestones can be found on Handschoenmarkt, in front of the cathedral. Designed by Batist Vermeulen (‘Tist’), the boy and dog appear to be sleeping, or at least that is what Simeon thinks. The characters come from the 1872 novel A Dog of Flanders by the English author Marie Louise de la Ramée (1839-1908) under the pseudonym Ouida. The story, despite being popular in Antwerp at Christmas time, is rather sad and not for the likes of tender-hearted gibbons, so cover your ears, Simeon!

“One day, Nello and Jehan Daas find a dog who was almost beaten to death, and name him Patrasche. Due to the good care of Jehan Daas, the dog recovers, and from then on, Nello and Patrasche are inseparable. Since they are very poor, Nello has to help his grandfather by selling milk. Patrasche helps Nello pull their cart into town each morning.

Nello falls in love with Aloise, the daughter of Nicholas Cogez, a well-off man in the village, but Nicholas doesn’t want his daughter to have a poor sweetheart. Although Nello is illiterate, he is very talented in drawing. He enters a junior drawing contest in Antwerp, hoping to win the first prize, 200 francs per year. However, the jury selects somebody else.

Afterwards, he is accused of causing a fire by Nicholas (the fire occurred on his property) and his grandfather dies. His life becomes even more desperate. Having no place to stay, Nello wishes to go to the cathedral of Antwerp (to see Rubens’ The Elevation of the Cross and The Descent of the Cross), but the exhibition held inside the building is only for paying customers and he’s out of money. On the night of Christmas Eve, he and Patrasche go to Antwerp and, by chance, find the door to the church open. The next morning, the boy and his dog are found frozen to death in front of the triptych.”

On a happier note, the statue is popular with tourists and is a favourite destination for selfie-takers.

Simeon saw all three of these statues on his first tour of the city, however, during his four-night stay, he packed in so many of Antwerp’s other great attractions. Antwerp, particularly the Old Town, is full of museums that explore an extensive history of the city, culture and inhabitants. Of this large number of places to visit, Simeon would like to recommend three museums in particular. The first on his list is the home-turned-museum/gallery of Antwerp’s most famous resident, Rubens.

My dear friend Rubens,
Would you be so good as to admit the bearer of this letter to the wonders of your home: your paintings, the marble sculptures, and the other works of art in your house and studio? It will be a great delight for him.
Your dear friend Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresac, 16th August 1626

In a street named Wapper, Rubenshuis (The Rubens’ House) is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., except on Monday, for a fee of €10 per adult. This is the house Peter Paul Rubens bought in 1610 with his first wife Isabella Brant (1591-1626), where he lived and worked until his death in 1640. Originally, the building was not as large as it is today, however, Rubens designed and enlarged sections, adding a studio, portico and a garden pavilion. Unfortunately, the garden and courtyard are undergoing restoration work and will not be open to the public until 2028.

Initially a typical Antwerpen house, Rubens developed it into a building that resembled an Italian palazzo. Not only was it an unparalleled home, but it was also the perfect location for Rubens’ internationally admired collection of paintings and classical sculpture. Despite the current renovations, the building retains its original mid-17th-century appearance, however, only a fraction of Rubens’ accumulation of art remains, the rest has been dispersed to museums and galleries throughout the world.

Disappointingly, very little is explained about Rubens’ day to day life in the house and the majority of artworks are by his contemporaries rather than himself. Nonetheless, there is a copy of the portrait Rubens produced of his second wife Helena Fourment (1614-73) whom he married when she was only sixteen. There is also one of Rubens’ four self-portraits, which he painted around the same time he married Helena, aged 53.

Simeon particularly enjoyed seeing Singerie, an oil painting by the Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625). It shows a group of monkeys dressed in clothes mimicking human behaviour. Brueghel was a good friend of Rubens, which is probably how this painting came to be in his possession.

Simeon’s advice: Pick up a free guide book at the ticket desk, which provides you with detailed information about the highlights in each room.

Through labour and perseverance.
– Plantin’s motto

With rooms set out as they may have been 400 years ago, the Museum Plantin-Moretus reveals the lives of the Plantin-Moretus family and the printing press Christophe Plantin (1520-89) and Jan Moretus (1543-1610) set up in the mid-16th-century. Now a Unesco world heritage site, for €8 visitors can experience the building’s creaking oak planks and panels, see an impressive collection of books and art, and the oldest printing presses in the world.

Christophe Plantin was a bookbinder from France who published his first book in 1555. In 1576, Plantin relocated his family and printing works to the Vrijdagmarkt in Antwerp, converting the house into a beautiful mansion. Here, he also set up his printing office, the Officina Plantiniana, which quickly became an international publishing firm and ranked among the top of Europe’s industrial leaders.

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In the heart of the mansion is the old printing shop, which was first used in 1580 until its last owner, Edward Moretus, sold the house to the City of Antwerp in 1876. The museum contains the two oldest printing presses in the world, dating from around 1600 and six other presses that are still in working order. Thousands of tiny lead type can be seen in wooden type cases, which, as Simeon learnt, were assembled in reverse on a chase before being put on the press.

Simeon’s advice: The museum takes approximately two hours to see in full. For those in a rush, by following the highlights on the map provided, it is possible to limit your visit to one hour. The entry bracelet allows visitors to come in and out of the museum throughout the day, so feel free to take a coffee break.

“A surprising museum in the heart of Antwerp”

Rubens was not the only artist and art collector to live in Antwerp. On Keizerstraat sits the houses of two key figures during the Baroque era, which have been combined to create the Snijders&Rockoxhuis, a museum open to the public every day except Mondays. Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), the burgemeester (mayor), and Frans Snijders (1579-1657), a painter of still life and animals, were next door neighbours for twenty years. Carefully restored and containing a number of artworks by Snijder and his contemporaries, the museum provides an insight into domestic environments of the 17th-century.

Nicolaas Rockox and his wife Adriana Perez both lived on Keizerstraat before they were married and remained in Adriana’s family home for a short while after their wedding. Eventually, they jointly purchased their beautiful house, known as Den Gulden Rinck, where they remained for the rest of their lives. After Rockox’s death, his nephew Adriaan van Heetvelde inherited the house with the condition that when there were no further heirs, it was to be sold on behalf of the poor. After changing hands numerous times, it was purchased by the non-profit association Artiestenfonds and converted into a museum of ‘neo’ or revival styles of art. Today, the museum is owned by KBC who are endeavouring to preserve the Flemish cultural heritage and have restored both houses to their original interior.

Visitors are provided with an iPad to take with them around the museum, which provides both an audio and visual guide. The audio guide describes the lives of Rockox and Snijders whilst the iPad contributes additional information about every artwork and object in the house. Simeon enjoyed learning about his favourite paintings in more detail and looking at the musical instruments on the top floor.

Simeon’s advice: All the information found on the iPads can be downloaded from their website to read later.

A little known fact about Simeon is that he thinks he is an aficionado of beautiful buildings, particularly churches (really he’s just a fan). Antwerp during the 17th-century was shaped by a large number of churches, however, during French Revolutionary rule, all but five monumental churches were destroyed. Fortunately, this was plenty enough to satiate Simeon’s intense desire to explore and he was able to visit four plus one of the newer churches.

Unmissable from nearly every section of Antwerp’s Old Town is the enormous Roman Catholic Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cahedral of Our Lady) whose 400 ft steeple towers over the surrounding buildings. It took labourers 169 years (1352-1521) to build the tallest cathedral in the Low Countries, comprising of a short and long tower, seven naves and numerous buttresses. The interior, however, is but a shadow of its 16th-century opulence having suffered a fire in 1533 and various destruction during the “Iconoclastic Fury” (1566) and Calvinist “purification” (1581-1585). Initially, on every pillar was a decorated altarpiece, however, only a handful survived.

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Thanks to the aid of Archduke Albert (1559-1621), the Infanta Isabella (1566-1633) and the Counter-Reformation, glory was restored to the cathedral and Rubens was commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox to paint a new altarpiece, Descent from the Cross (1611-14), which can still be seen in place today. The triptych depicts three Biblical scenes: the expectant Virgin Mary, Christ being lowered from the cross, and the elderly Simeon (not the gibbon) in the Temple.

Other works by Rubens can also be found in the cathedral, for instance, Resurrection of Christ (1611-12) and Assumption of the Virgin (1625-26). Statues are also prevalent in the building, including two life-size limestone statues of Saints Peter and Paul designed by Johannes van Mildert (1588-1638) and a contemporary statue of burnished bronze, The Man Who Bears the Cross, which Jan Fabre (b.1958) produced in 2015. For a fee of €6, all this and more can be admired by the public.

On the outskirts of the Old Town, just off the Mechelspleintje (Mechelen square) is the Neo-Gothic Sint-Joris Kerk (the Church of St George). Built in 1853, the church was a replacement for its 13th-century predecessor that had been destroyed by the French in 1798. Despite being tiny in comparison to the cathedral, the architect included two impressive towers approximately 50 metres in height, and a statue of Saint George on a triangular pediment.

The interior of the church was mostly the work of Godfried Guffens (1823-1901) and Jan Swert (1820-79) who spent thirty years or so lavishly decorating the church with mural paintings. Mostly images of Jesus suffering on the cross, these symbolically represent the fight and hardships of the churches in Antwerp during the French Revolution.

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Simeon was most impressed with the large Merklin organ dated 1867, which has three keyboards and 1208 pipes. Although Simeon was not able to hear it played, it reportedly has beautiful acoustics and remains to be one of the best-preserved concert instruments in the city. The organ sits in front of a large stained glass window, looked down upon by two musical saints, Saint Cecilia, the patroness of musicians and Saint Gregory.

Located on the Hendrik Conscience square opposite the Erfgoedbibliotheek (Heritage Library) is the most important Baroque church in the Low Countries, Sint-Carolus Borromeuskerk (St Charles Borromeo’s Church). Consecrated in 1621, the church is a result of the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuit Order, and Antwerp’s number one painter, Rubens. The artist made considerable contributions to the facade, including the coat of arms featuring the “IHS” emblem of the Jesuits, and filled the interior with 39 ceiling paintings and three altarpieces.

Alas, a fire in 1718 destroyed the original ceiling and the altarpieces were moved to the Habsburg imperial collection in Vienna. Today, a smaller altarpiece by Rubens, Return of the Holy Family, commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox is one of the highlights inside the church.

Simeon’s favourite part of the church was the balcony from which he could look down upon the main body and altar. Two small altars can be found at either end of the balcony and, in the middle, visitors get a close up look of the huge organ.

Sint-Jacobskerk (St James’s Church) on Lange Nieuwstraat is the place to go for fans of Rubens. Only a short walk from Rubens’ house, St James’s was his parish church, which he began attending before the building was completed. The first stone of the Gothic church was laid in 1491 and the last some 150 years later. Today, the church is undergoing renovations, so to Simeon, it still did not look complete!

As was the fate of all churches in the area, the interior of the church was destroyed by Calvinist iconoclasts in 1566 but, fortunately, Baroque decorations were found to replace the majority of the damaged altars. The high altar was sculpted in marble and wood by at least four artists and is thought to cost as much as 17,874 guilders, which was roughly seventy times the annual wage of a master craftsman.

Being Rubens’ parish church, Sint-Jacobskerk is home to his resting place. One of the small, fairly modest chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary, contains Rubens’ remains which lie under an altarpiece produced by his own hand. Rubens, a rather modest man himself, was offered the chapel as his burial ground whilst he was on his death bed. Rather than accepting the generous offer, he replied that he would only be buried there if his family believed he was worthy of such an honour. Naturally, his grave is now the biggest attraction at St James’s and there is a small fee required to gain entry to the church.

The final church Simeon visited was Sint Pauluskerk (St Paul’s Church) a former Dominican church on the corner of Veemarkt and Zwartzustersstraat. Originally part of a large Dominican abbey, the church has a number of Baroque altars, over 200 statues and 50 paintings by artists such as Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), Rubens, and Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641).

Rubens was commissioned by the Dominicans to paint three large altarpieces and one of the fifteen paintings that make up the Rosary Cycle, Flagellation of Christ. Unfortunately, since the church building was not completed until 1634, Rubens never got to see his work in place because the altarpieces took many more years to finish and were, therefore, installed long after his death.

Visitors are welcome to view the treasures belonging to the church, including a number of reliquaries, chalices, ceremonial robes, sculptures and ornaments. One reliquary is said to contain a thorn from the crown Jesus wore at his crucifixion.

There are, of course, so many more places to visit in Antwerp but there is only so much a small gibbon can pack into a short trip. Buildings, such as Antwerpen-Centraal railway station, are worth admiring for their architecture. There is also the River Scheldt to walk along where you can see stunning sunsets in the evenings. Next to the station is Antwerp Zoo, one of the oldest in the world, established on 21st July 1843, which Simeon did not visit for fear they would not let him back out again!

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Of course, you cannot go to Belgium without sampling some chocolate and Antwerp has a great number of chocolate shops. Simeon’s favourite was Elisa Pralines in the Grote Markt, which sells hundreds of handmade chocolates. They also sell Antwerpen specialities, such as Antwerpse Handjes, which are biscuits in the shape of little hands.

Another Antwerpen speciality is Tripel D’anvers, a Belgian beer made in Antwerp that is “bold, generous and [has] plenty of attitude.” Simeon suggests ordering this in Antwerp’s oldest pub Quinten Matsijs, which is 450 years old. Named after the Flemish painter (1466–1530), the building dates from 1565 and has been the hangout of many Flemish writers, painters and poets. As well as beer, they serve Gezoden worst, an Antwerp speciality of boiled pork sausages with fine herbs, served in bouillon.

While in Antwerp, Simeon was never far away from a cafe or restaurant. There is something to suit every person and mealtime. For cakes and chocolate products, Simeon suggests Sofie Sucrée and for a light bite while museum visiting, Rubens Inn, which is located next to Rubenshuis. For those wishing to be waited upon, there is the t’ Hof van Eden (literally the Garden of Eden) on the Groenplaats, which has an extensive menu. For quick bites or “fast food”, Simeon recommends JACK Premium Burgers established by Jilles “Jack” D’Hulster who wanted to “do a simple thing well, and do it properly.” Alternatively, pop into Panos, which launched its famous sausage roll in 1982. And, for those who are sceptical about trying “foreign” food, there’s always a McDonalds or Starbucks around the corner.

Having exhausted himself by sharing all his memories of Antwerp, Simeon bids you farewell and bon voyage or Goede reis, and leaves you with his top tips.

Simeon’s Top Tips

1. Check museum opening times before you visit. Most museums are not open on Mondays.
2. Be quiet in the churches. Some people have come to pray and do not wish to be disturbed by noisy tourists.
3. Save money and walk. Although there is a tram system, everything in the Old Town is within walking distance.
4. Take a raincoat. Particularly if you are travelling in March.
5. Pace yourself. There is so much to see and you need time to take it all in.
6. Try some Antwerp/Belgium delicacies. There’s more than chocolates, biscuits, waffles and beer.
7. Do not eat too much chocolate. Seriously, it will not make your tummy feel good.
8. Do not cross the road on a red light. They do not like you doing that over there.
9. Do not fall into the river. It is deep and you will get wet.
10. No need to learn French. They speak Flemish Dutch in Antwerp.

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Read all about Simeon’s other adventures:
Simeon Goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea

King and Collector

For the first time since the 17th century, a fraction of Charles I’s (1600-49) impressive collection of treasures is reunited in a phenomenal exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. It is thought that the Stuart king once amassed over 1500 paintings, which after his execution in 1649, were sold off and scattered across Europe. Thanks to his son and heir, Charles II, who incidentally has an exhibition of his own at the Queen’s Gallery, many of these were retrieved and reclaimed by the royal family. Charles I: King and Collector contain over 100 works including classical sculpture, Baroque paintings, miniatures and tapestries.

The fate of Charles I is largely known, however, his personal life and character often get overlooked. Charles was the second son and youngest surviving child of James VI of Scotland (later James I) and was not destined to become king. Unfortunately, his older brother Henry, the Prince of Wales died in 1612, making Charles heir apparent. Thirteen years later, Charles succeeded his father as king and his volatile reign began. As the king of Great Britain, Charles I angered many people by dissolving Parliament and taking complete control of the country. By 1642, the first of two civil wars had broken out between the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), and the Royalists. Seven years later, Charles was dead, having been beheaded in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace.

The Royal Academy puts Charles I’s execution to one side and concentrates on the man himself and his huge collection of artworks. At the time, Charles owned the best art collection in Europe and the pieces that remain in the Royal Collection are his greatest legacy. The exhibition begins by introducing a few of the painters that were working at the time of Charles’ reign. These include Anthony van Dyck ,(1599-1641), Peter Paul Rubens (1571-1640), and Daniel Mytens (1590 – 1647), whose self-portraits can be seen in the first gallery.

Two portraits by Van Dyck introduce visitors to the king and his queen, Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), the daughter of Henri IV of France. The painting of King Charles is unusual in that it contains three portraits of the king, each facing a different direction: profile, face on, and half-profile. This painting was not made for display but rather to aid the Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) to produce a bust of the British king. Unfortunately, this sculpture was later lost in a fire. This painting, however, reveals a lot about the way Charles wished to be seen. It is clear from his clothing that he is a man of taste, yet his dreamy expression suggests an air of sensitivity.

Charles’ passion for art began before he became king and was greatly impacted by his travels to Madrid in 1623. The initial purpose of visiting Spain was to explore the possibility of marrying the Infanta Maria Anna, however, it quickly became apparent that this was never going to happen. Instead, Charles returned to England with a number of paintings and artworks. Many of these appear in this exhibition, including several he acquired from the continent later in life, in particular, the second century AD statue of the Greek goddess, Aphrodite.

Aphrodite or The Crouching Venus is one of several Roman marble copies of the lost Hellenistic sculpture. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and beauty who is depicted as a nude in a crouching pose with her hair over her left shoulder.

This was one of the most beautiful antiquities sourced in Mantua for the king. After Charles’ execution, the painter Peter Lely (1618-80) acquired the statue, however, returned it after the restoration of the monarchy. The Crouching Venus can usually be found at the British Museum where it has been on loan since 1963.

Another important artwork with Spanish connections is a large-scale oil painting by Rubens that was gifted to the king by the artist. Peace and War (c1630) was Ruben’s subliminal method of illustrating his hopes for peace between England and Spain. In the background, the Roman goddess Minerva can be seen pushing Mars, the god of war, whilst in the foreground, Pax, the goddess of Peace sits amidst a horn of plenty.

“The King prefers old paintings.” Letter from England to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, 11th July 1635

Many paintings in Charles’ collection were painted long before he was born. A considerable amount of artwork on display comes from the Renaissance era, both Northern and Italian. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), who had been in service to Henry VIII (1491-1547) was a particular favourite. It is recorded that Charles I owned 44 works by Holbein, who predominantly painted portraits. The example in this exhibition, however, is a biblical scene taken from John 20:17. Noli me tangere (c1528) shows the risen Christ outside his tomb forbidding Mary Magdalene to touch him.

Nearby, another Biblical painting from the same era depicts Adam and Eve standing naked in the Garden of Eden after taking their forbidden bites from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This painting by Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) was sent by the Dutch states in an attempt to curry favour with the king. A number of paintings from Northern Europe were given to Charles as gifts, therefore, it cannot be certain whether he enjoyed these types of works. On the other hand, the sheer number of paintings from the Italian Renaissance, which fills two galleries of the exhibition, imply that the king had a passion for older works.

Biblical scenes were popular amongst Renaissance painters, therefore, it is unsurprising to find several more religious artworks in Charles’ collection. One of particular note is The Supper at Emmaus (c1534) by the Italian painter Titian (1488-1576). Charles acquired this painting in the 1620s shortly before becoming king. It illustrates part of the New Testament recorded in Luke 24:30-31 where Jesus is breaking bread with two disciples after his resurrection. This, however, is not the reason for its significance, it is the techniques of the artist rather than the subject that matters most in this exhibition.

As those who choose to pay for an audio guide will discover, works by Titian influenced many later artists, including Van Dyck who became the Principalle Paynter in Ordenarie to their Majesties in 1632. In the background of Titian’s painting is a large column, which can be seen over Jesus’ shoulder. The positioning of this column is deliberate because it draws the eye to the principal character in the painting, thus denoting his importance. Van Dyck uses this artistic trick in a few of his portraits of Charles I and the royal family. Similarly, William Dobson (1611-46) does the same in a portrait of Charles II, indicating his importance, even at the young age of twelve.

As the king’s painter, Van Dyck was responsible for many of the portraits of members of the royal family. Born in the Flemish city Antwerp, Anthony van Dyck was a teen prodigy who found his feet as an assistant to Peter Paul Rubens. It was during a stay in Italy where Van Dyck encountered paintings by Titian and filled many sketchbooks with drawings based on these. One of these books is displayed in the final gallery of the exhibition.

Van Dyck quickly built up a reputation as a portraitist and was sought out by many aristocrats throughout Europe. King Charles I was one of his many admirers and enticed Van Dyck to come to England with promises of a knighthood, a bountiful salary and a studio in Blackfriars, London. Although he preferred to be in mainland Europe, Van Dyck impressed the British nobility with his impressive paintings.

For the first and possibly only time, the four largest and most important paintings Van Dyck produced of Charles I are on display at the centre of the exhibition. The curators at the Royal Academy have done an excellent job at positioning these tall canvases so that if visitors stand in the centre of the Central Hall, they can turn 360 degrees and take in all four paintings. Three of these focus on the king and his passion for the hunting field, however, the other is a family portrait, featuring his wife and two eldest children.

The first piece Van Dyck was commissioned to produce for the king was the family portrait, which became known as The Great Peece (1632). Charles and Henrietta Maria are both seated on throne-like chairs whilst their pet dogs play on the floor at their feet. The queen holds the baby Mary and Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, clings to his father’s leg. This may appear a casual, informal portrait depicting the foursome as a family rather than rulers of the country, however, there are many subliminal signs that suggest the opposite.

To the king’s right-hand side sits the royal crown atop a red velvet cloth, which indicates Charles’ status. Behind him, in the distance, are the buildings of Westminster, communicating the king’s role in politics. Both of these elements point to Charles’ importance, however, Van Dyck’s use of a column inspired by Titian, is almost an arrow pointing to the most significant person in the painting.

The remaining three paintings show Charles I outside of his family circle. In two of these, Charles is mounted on a horse: Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine (1633) and Charles I on Horseback (1637-8). Equestrian paintings were an emblem of power and Charles wished to appear to the public as a strong ruler. The horses are large and muscular with manes that are not dissimilar to their rider’s hair. Van Dyck uses the strength of these animals to stress the powerful position of the king.

The final large painting, Le Roi à la Chasse or Charles I in the Hunting Field (1636) reflects more of the king’s personality than his position of power. Rather than sitting aside his horse, Charles stands at its head striking a nonchalant pose with a traditional English landscape behind him. Although Charles may not be wearing the royal armour as in the previous two paintings, he is still dressed as befits his status, complete with broad-brimmed hat, an appearance that would become a memorable look for the king.

It is clear from this exhibition that Charles I had an eye for artwork, however, he was not the only one. Henrietta Maria sought out and commissioned a fair share of the collection, particularly the Italian Baroque paintings, which her husband appeared not to be as fascinated with. Like her husband, Henrietta Maria was drawn to religious scenes as well as the occasional Greek or Roman myth. Many of the paintings owned by the queen were commissioned for particular rooms in her apartments, including the Queen’s House in Greenwich.

The Queen’s House was originally going to be a gift for James I’s wife, however, she died before its completion. Henrietta Maria, who received the house as a present from Charles I, made the building’s decoration her personal project. One painter she particularly admired was Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) who had once worked for her mother in Paris. Henrietta Maria persuaded the Italian painter to come to England where he decorated one of the ceilings at the house in Greenwich. He also completed canvases for the queen, including Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1630-2), which only returned to the Queen’s House last year.

Gentileschi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife is based on a scene from the Book of Genesis (39:7-12) when the Pharaoh’s wife attempts to entice Joseph into bed, who at this time is the captain of Potiphar’s guard. Although Joseph refuses the woman, she uses his cloak, which in the painting she is holding on to whilst Joseph makes his escape, to claim that he had seduced her. The rich colours, smooth skin tone, an abundance of fabric, and the use of chiaroscuro (dramatic lighting, see Caravaggio) that Gentileschi includes in the painting are an indication of Henrietta Maria’s tastes.

Visitors who have also been to the Queen’s House may also recognise the final painting in the exhibition: Landscape with St George and the Dragon (1630-5) by Peter Paul Rubens. This was not one of Henrietta Maria’s acquisitions but a gift to the king from the artist. It is believed that Rubens produced this landscape in honour of England after his year as an English diplomat. It is a depiction of the famous English folktale where Saint George defeats the bloodthirsty dragon, however, in the background can be seen buildings alongside the River Thames. It is also suggested that Saint George has been deliberately painted to resemble King Charles I.

The paintings mentioned above are only a handful of the marvellous artworks that Charles I had in his reputable collection. Within this exhibition are the nine paintings that make up The Triumph of Caesar (1484-92) by the 15th-century artist Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), and four tapestries showing the Acts of the Apostles. There is also a room devoted to miniatures and small items that were part of the Whitehall Cabinet. These would not have been on public view, therefore, give an insight into Charles’ life behind doors. One item worth noting is the tiny bronze statue of Charles I on horseback by Hubert Le Sueur (1580 – 1658); this is a model of the version erected in Trafalgar Square.

As reported in The Times, the RA exhibition Charles I: King and Collector is “a landmark exhibition. You will not see its likes again. Don’t miss your chance.” This is a very accurate opinion, it is indeed a landmark exhibition and these paintings will never be all in the same place again. Most importantly, the paintings on show are some of the best to have been produced prior to and during the early 1600s. It may be expensive to enter, but after two hours of walking through the galleries, you will agree that it is worth the price.

Charles I: King and Collector is organised in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and remains on show until 15th April 2018. Prices are £18 although concessions are available. 

 

The Other Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn is one of the most recognisable names of the 17th century. Born and raised in the Netherlands, Rembrandt is the greatest artist the Dutch have ever produced. In order to celebrate the opening of a new gallery at The National Gallery in London – the first to open in 26 years – an exhibition ran from 22nd March – 6th August 2017 entitled Rubens and Rembrandt. But why were these two artists merged together?

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Section of Self Portrait at the age of 34 by Rembrandt, 1640

Rembrandt

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn was born in Leiden, a city towards the south of the Netherlands, on 15th July 1606. Although he was the son of a miller, he would grow up to be the country’s greatest artist. His love of art was sparked by a local painter, Jacob van Swanenburgh, to whom Rembrandt was apprenticed for roughly three years. However, Rembrandt’s most significant influence was Pieter Lastman, a painter in Amsterdam who he spent six months with in 1624. Lastman’s teaching inspired Rembrandt to focus on religious subjects but also to portray evocative emotion in his works through the use of dramatic lighting effects.

The beginnings of Rembrandt’s career included many portrait commissions, becoming the most sort out portraitist in the city of Amsterdam. However, by the 1640s the amount of formal portraiture declined as he turned his hand to religious painting. This may have been a psychological response to the death of his wife Saskia in 1642 and of his mother two years previously. Religion was likely to have been a comfort to him during this difficult period.

Unfortunately, it was portraits that earned artists the most money during this era, therefore Rembrandt began to suffer financial difficulties. To avoid the fate of bankruptcy, Rembrandt had to sell his lavish home and move to a poorer district – a complete contrast to the wealthy lifestyle he had been used to since birth. However, this downfall did not attack his productivity and he continued to receive important commissions from those who knew of and respected him.

As Rembrandt entered his final years, his paintings took on a greater air of human understanding and compassion. Unfortunate circumstances throughout his life saw the deaths of his wife, children and lover, however, he kept his dignity until the very end, not letting tragedy negatively impact on his artwork. Rembrandt continued to paint up until his death on 4th October 1669.

It is not only his portraits and religious imagery that caused Rembrandt such renown. Although these make up the greater part of his collection, he also produced many landscapes, still-lives and paintings that defy classification. He was also adept at etching and drawing, his skills so adroit that it has been almost impossible to surpass.

Rubens

(Sir) Peter Paul Rubens – Rembrandt’s Flemish counterpart in this exhibition – was born much earlier on 28th June 1577 in Siegen, Westphalia (now Germany). His youth was mostly based in Antwerp, Belgium, to which his family returned after the death of his father in 1587 (he had fled from religious prosecution for having protestant sympathies).

From approximately 1590, Rubens began his training to become the most influential artist of Baroque art in Northern Europe. Although he had tutors in his home country, Rubens’ style did not develop until he had spent some time in Italy at the dawning of the century. Here he took on some portrait commissions for aristocratic families whilst honing his skills by studying the artistic masters of the Renaissance.

Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1608 and promptly became court painter to Archduke Albert, the Spanish governor of the Netherlands. The demand for Rubens’ work increased rapidly and the artist often had to rely on his students and assistants to complete various commissions. As well as being able to paint nearly every subject possible, Rubens could also turn his hand to tapestry, book illustration and fresco, plus provide advice for architects and sculptors.

My talents are such that I have never lacked courage to undertake any design, however vast in size or diversified in subject.

-Rubens, 1621

The exhibition at the National Gallery hailed the two artists as the most inventive and influential of the seventeenth century in Northern Europe. Although working at similar times, their approaches were profoundly different, yet, they both had a significant impact on the future of art. With Rubens’ work adorning one side of the gallery, and Rembrandt’s the opposite, the exhibition celebrated the differences and similarities of the two world renowned painters.

Although only a handful of each artists’ work made it into the exhibition, the selection showed off the diversity of their talent, including, but not limited to, subject matter and scale. Some paintings were more well known than others, particularly the self-portraits of Rembrandt aged 34 and 63.

The most expressive of Rubens’ work in the display was Samson and Delilah which was painted in approximately 1609. This is an interpretation of the Old Testament story in which Delilah cuts off Samson’s hair – where his source of great strength comes from – weakening him enough to be captured and imprisoned by soldiers (Judges 16:19). It is not the story that grabs the viewers attention, but rather the dramatic lighting effects and strong use of the colour red. This goes to show the influence other painters hand on Rubens during his time in Italy. (For example, see Caravaggio)

Many of the other paintings in the display revealed Rubens penchant for Roman mythology. One oil painting of significant scale, The Judgement of Paris (c1632-5), tells the story of the golden apple that Paris was solicited into giving to the goddess he believed to be most beautiful. Paris chose Venus, the goddess of love, angering the other two goddesses, Minerva and Juno, and foreshadowing the Trojan War.

Although this painting does not have the Caravaggesque of Samson and Delilah, it is still brightly coloured and detailed, making it pleasant to look at. Despite containing nudity, it is not lewd or suggestive, thus doing justice to the major Roman goddesses.

Rembrandt’s work, on the other hand, is much darker – not the subject, but in the choice, or lack of colour. As can be seen in the section of his self-portrait above, Rembrandt preferred to leave the background in shadow with little to none detail. His dramatic lighting draws the viewer to the important parts of the painting. At a glance, a general overview of the stories depicted can be ascertained, however, a deeper study must be made to reveal all the elements.

An example that sums up all these aforementioned approaches is Belshazzar’s Feast (c1636-8). The source of light highlights the lesser known Babylonian king written about in the Bible (Daniel 5), pouring wine from precious containers. In the top right-hand corner, Hebrew words appear that translate to “God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. thou art weighed in the balance, and art found wanting.” As the Bible story goes, Belshazzar was killed later that night.

A closer look at the painting shows the shock of Belshazzar’s guests at his reaction to the words by the divine hand. The lack of colour in the figures help to emphasise the strong light source that shines through the written words of God. This is just one of many religious paintings that Rembrandt undertook during his career, and also goes to show that he did not only stick to the famous Bible stories, instead illustrating the more obscure.

Other religious paintings that were displayed in the exhibition include Ecce Homo (1634), The Woman taken in Adultery (1644) and An Elderly Man as Saint Paul (c1659). These all contain a distinct lack of colour, preferring browns and shades of black over anything more flamboyant.

The most obvious difference between the two European painters is the choice of colour palette. Rubens’ brighter selection paint a more fairy-tale-like story that befits mythology, whereas Rembrandt’s dark colours create a sense of melancholy and seriousness. The contrast of theme between Rubens’ mythological paintings and Rembrandt’s religious is also evident, however, is also misleading, for only a marginal selection were on display. Both artists are known to have focused on both subject matters in their paintings.

One final observation and contrast is the brush work. The strokes in Rubens’ paintings are much smoother than Rembrandt’s who appeared to have dabbled the paint more often than applying a gentle, steady hand.

Take One Picture 

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A Roman Triumph, Rubens c1630

Every year, the National Gallery encourages primary schools throughout Britain to focus on one painting in their collection and create an artistic response. In an exhibition titled Take One Picture, the gallery is exhibiting a variety of the work produced by these children. This year’s painting of choice is Rubens’ A Roman Triumph, which felt highly appropriate regarding the Rubens and Rembrandt exhibition in the adjacent room.

This painting depicts a Roman triumph to celebrate either a military campaign or victory. A procession of young men, musicians, dancers, a priest and exotic animals are witnessed by spectators as they make their way through the city. Instead of regarding the busy painting as a whole, each participating school was encouraged to select a particular aspect to study. Children contemplated the sounds, smells, and feelings the participants may have felt and responded to these ideas with a group art project. A range of art forms has been experimented with from performance to sculpture and puppet-making.

Despite the Rubens and Rembrandt exhibition closing on the 6th August, Take One Picture has remained throughout the summer holiday and will continue to be shown until 24th September. Not only is it interesting to see how young minds reacted to the European master’s painting, it also encourages visitors to assess their own thoughts about the work.

Some children were inspired by the people in the painting, taking an interest in their postures and the way in which they were walking or standing. Others narrowed it down to the clothing, looking closely at patterns, fabrics and colours. Naturally, some classes were drawn to the animals, particularly the elephants, but the way they executed their creative responses varied greatly.  Some based their work on the types of animals, whereas others used the sounds the animals may have made as their inspiration.

Whichever element of the painting the schools honed in on, none of the responses were the same. This goes to show how open to interpretation artwork can be. No one will know what Rubens hoped viewers would take away from his painting, but today it still has educational purposes and is a great source of entertainment.

Take One Picture has been running since 1995 and has greatly benefitted children with its cross-curricular opportunities. It will be interesting to follow the scheme and discover which art works are chosen in the future. For 2018, the choice has already been made. Next summer, the National Gallery can expect to display a wide range of responses to Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768).

Take One Picture is generously supported by GRoW @ Annenberg, The Dorset Foundation, Christoph Henkel and other donors. Further information about the programme, related CPD courses for teachers, and the annual Take One Picture exhibition at the National Gallery can be found here