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Artists get a bad rap

Rubens, his wife Helena Fourment, and their son Peter Paul
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

There is no great genius without a mixture of madness, said Aristotle. Maybe that's true for scientists, like him. But it’s that kind of thinking that has given artists a bad name.

Not that some artists don’t relish being linked to madness, like Dali, who crowed about being a whacko and acted out the boast.

But not enough is written about artists whose lives balance the picture. Peter Paul Rubens comes to mind because his “Self Portrait” is in the news for a restoration at the National Gallery in London, and join a show next year at the Rubens House in Antwerp called “Rubens in Private: The Master Portrays His Family.”

The look at Rubens as family man warrants a hurrah. Exhibit examples were made from the heart rather than on commission; although even in his commissioned work, his devotion to family can be seen.

I’m thinking of “The Triumph of Divine Love” ordered by the sovereign of the Spanish Netherlands, Isabella Clara Eugenia for the Convent of the Poor Clare's celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi.

Rubens used his children as models for the crowd of adoring, rose-hued Cupids darting about a swooning red-robed woman. You might call the work Rubens progeny on the wing.

He preferred painting real people, and not only used his children as models, but also the women of his two marriages. His first wife Isabella Brandt who died young from the plague, bore him three children. His second wife was Helene Fourment, Isabella’s cousin, bore him five children.

After Isabella died, Rubens put his love for her into a letter to his friend, Pierre Dupuy:

"I have lost my most intimate companion Such a loss touches my inmost being It will be hard for me to disentangle my sorrow from the memory I shall hold all my life of this dear and adored soul.''

The bond between Rubens and Isabella is plain to see in “Self-Portrait with Isabella Brandt,” which will probably be part of the family pictures in the Antwerp show. The painting describes the couple facing out to the viewer, but leaning familiarly toward one another with Isabelle’s hand set lightly on his. She bears a kind of secret smile as she watches her husband paint her.

The art world needs more artists’ stories like this to offset all the bad-boy press, don’t you think?

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