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Peter Paul Rubens - The Honeysuckle Bower

by Alexandra Tuschka

He had spent nine years in Italy when Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1608. Shortly thereafter, already 32 and highly famous, he met the 18-year-old Isabella Brant, a young girl of status from his immediate surroundings. His brother Phillip had married her relative Marie de Moy and introduced them to each other. So now, not even a year after their return, they were already married. The double portrait, which we know today as "Honeysuckle Bower," shows Rubens in intimate union with his wife. He was the most sought-after painter of his time and a social climber. With his appointment as court painter, he received a rich annual salary and could demand prices for his works that had never been paid before. Thus his bourgeois background met the newly acquired aristocratic lifestyle.

The portrait with his wife expresses this symbiosis: the couple is sitting outdoors in front of an arbor back wall. She has made herself comfortable on the ground, possibly with a seat cushion, while he is positioned somewhat elevated, demonstrating, as it were, his superior role in the partnership. Isabella, however, is positioned in front of her husband and closer to the viewer, so that the relationship appears balanced. Both wear splendid, high-quality clothing, Isabella is richly adorned. Behind her, the greenery has grown densely and slows down our gaze; on the left, however, it opens up into the distance. One can freely associate this with the different roles. The man turns to the "world", the woman to the domestic, closed area. This motif is reminiscent of love gardens, but also of the "Madonna dell'humilita", although sitting on the floor on a cushion was not unusual in higher circles of that time.

While Rubens shows a serene expression, one finds a mild smile on the woman's face. The hands of the two unite in his lap. Her hand rests on that of her husband. This gesture probably comes from an ancient marriage tradition, the dextrarum iunctio. The composition is also deliberately chosen, we see the spouses in a circular formation - stable, balanced closed. Likewise, the colors are balanced and soothe the eye. The strong colors red and orange complement each other in the center and are framed by the complementary color blue.

The deeper layer of meaning in the painting is expressed in the choice of setting - the honeysuckle vine, popularly known in german as somewhat saying "the longer the better", is symbolic of a lasting, loving and fruitful union - the relocation of the couple outside for the correspondence of this union with nature. What gives the painting a special place within art is the novel and loving depiction of the couple. Contrary to the usual tradition, both are individual, equal, turned towards each other. Even a little eroticism is hidden in the gold band, which leads from Ruben's foot to the lady's pubic, she smiles coquettishly and probably does not mind. The marriage produced three children, two of whom survived their parents.

It could be that the painting was created in the year of the marriage 1609 and wanted to capture this wedding as a love portrait, but there is also, due to stylistic peculiarities and the fact that Rubens shows himself here as a nobleman with a sword, the theory that the year of creation 1612 is more likely. This privilege was namely withheld from the nobility. A previous depiction of this kind would have been an affront. In 1612, Rubens was actually elevated to the status of nobility. Such a double portrait could coincide with this event, thus securing and attesting to the status. The dimensions also speak for themselves: although the work has been cropped for unknown reasons, it still measures 178 x 136.5 cm and accordingly shows the two almost life-size. The hat, however, has had to leave a little material. Unfortunately, Isabella died at the age of only 36, Rubens later married a second time.

Peter Paul Rubens - The Honeysuckle Bower

Oil on canvas, 1609 / 1612, 178 x 136.5 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich


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