Rubens loved to draw his wife, Isabella Brant. The old Flemish master married her in the early 1600s when he was a young upstart. Peter Paul Rubens was popular and famous for his baroque paintings in his lifetime. The work of Rubens now lives in the collective unconscious as an icon of sensual and lush depictions of dramatic scenes.
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He’s considered an old master thanks to his classical training, role as Master of his local guild, and impressive body of work. But the definition for “old master” also calls for working independently. Still, artworks completed by an apprentice or factory are often included in collections by old masters. This can be especially true of a Rubens work.
That’s why I chose this chalk drawing by Rubens as a masterpiece. It reveals more than his extraordinary skill and technique for portraying a likeness. Even with just chalk and paper in hand, the master gives us emotional resonance and personality. He creates a powerful template for the portrait of Isabella Brant.
It’s almost as if Rubens couldn’t help but create masterful paintings even with chalk on paper. But this ability is also one of the reasons he was such a prolific painter. His pupils and assistants finished much of the work from his initial breakdowns and sketches. Rubens would sketch out a portrait with chalk, such as this of his wife, Isabella Brant, and then his assistants would fill in the majority of the painting from there. The master would give the canvas a few touch ups at the end. But can we really call that a Rubens? Yes, we do it all the time.
A Masterpiece Workshop
Rubens was more than just an exceptional artist. He was a team player and ahead of his time when it came to the production of artworks. As much as I admire his ability as an artist, it’s his business acumen that made him a superstar with lasting influence. When many think of Rubens they picture a voluptuous nude with rosy cheeks. I imagine a factory of eager apprentices churning out masterpieces. This was also likely how Rubens saw himself. That’s because he constructed this production system with meticulous care over many years. It started with printmaking.
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Artist and Entrepreneur
Peter Paul Rubens was ahead of his time as an entrepreneur of the 1600s. It started when he used the production of prints to escalate his fame throughout Europe. He used an early form of copyright called triple privilege to protect his designs in France, the Southern Netherlands, and United Provinces.
Key to his success, Rubens was a master of outsourcing. He hired the best and had etchings and engravings made of his work. The master constructed his team out of only classically trained specialists, many of whom he trained himself. His work has a particular, active and romantic style. It was crucial to Rubens that his special sauce reverberate through all these works.
Considering his meticulous vigor, this was easier said than done. Imagine creating an etching or engraving of this Isabella Brant chalk sketch. It’s not the fleshed-out finished piece but gives us an idea of how expert line technique can convey the emotional tenor and draftsmanship of Rubens.
Along with his printmaking ventures, Rubens ran an Antwerp workshop that produced more than 1,400 original pieces. They also created many copies and sold them to the eager elite throughout Europe. These pieces fall into three categories: those Rubens painted by himself, those he sketched out and then painted partially, and copies Rubens oversaw from templates he drew. After his helpers finished these creations, the master would often add touches and polish to bring the piece to his standards.
Rubens also outsourced details in his paintings, such as animals within one of his landscapes, to artists specializing in these figures. He knew his limitations as well as he did his extraordinary skill. Rubens shines this expertise through in his chalk portrait of Isabella Brant. 400 years after he made this sketch, his wife’s particular charm and beauty shine through on this mere slip of paper.
We feel as if we could know this woman thanks to the painter’s magic. He made the immaterial verve of an individual come to life as only he could. That’s what makes this sketch a masterpiece. It’s one of the rare cases where we know he did it all independently and we can still feel the love he channeled into it all these centuries later.
Portrait of Isabella Brant – FAQs
Who was Isabella Brant?
The first wife of the old master Peter Paul Rubens lived a short but rich and significant life. Born into a distinguished Antwerp family, Isabella Brant gave Rubens instant clout upon their marriage. It was just what he needed at the time. Even though he was an established painter in the early 1600s when they met, this union cemented his prominence in Antwerp.
Isabella served as a frequent model for Rubens and they had three children together. His paintings and drawings of Isabella reveal her glorious charm and unique beauty. She died at only 34 years old of the plague.
Why is this drawing of Isabella Brant by Rubens an important work of art?
The immediacy and personality in this portrait of the painter’s wife Isabella Brant make her seem present. The painter Peter Paul Rubens conveys her charisma and brilliance in this chalk portrait on paper. We can feel his love for her in the charm of the portrayal.
Currently in the British Museum, this sketch served as template for several paintings of Isabella Brant. For instance, the painter Anthony Van Dyck studied under Rubens. When it was time for him to move on and start his own career, he painted Isabella for his mentor using this drawing. But this was only the first of several great portraits created from the original drawing by Rubens.
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Vlieghe, Hans (1987). Burchard, Ludwig (ed.). Portraits of Identified Sitters Painted in Antwerp. Corpus Rubenianum. Vol. XIX. Albertina, Vienna: Harvey Miller Publishers.
Baumstark, Reinhold (1985). Peter Paul Rubens: the Decius Mus cycle. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Hind, Arthur (1923). Catalogue of Drawings by Dutch and Flemish Artists Preserved in the Department of Prints and drawings in the British Museum Volume 2. London: Longmans and Co.
Rowlands, John (1977). Rubens: Drawings and Sketches. Catalogue of an exhibition at the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. London: British Museum.
White, Christopher (1987). Peter Paul Rubens – Man and Artist. Connecticut: Yale University Press.
Held, Julius (1986). Rubens – Selected Drawings (2nd ed.). London: Phaidon Press Ltd.
Logan, Anne-Marie (2004). Schröder, Klaus Albrecht; Widauer, Heinz (eds.). Peter Paul Rubens Volume 2004 Part 3. Vienna: Ostfildern-Ruit: Cantz.