Peter Paul Rubens's small portrait of his eldest daughter, Clara Serena, likely painted shortly before her death at the age of 12, will be sold at Christie's auction in the London Old Masters Evening Sale on 5 July 2018 with an estimate of £3-5 million.
A glimpse into private life of Peter Paul Rubens, the famed Flemish artist of Northern Baroque (1577–1640), has in fact becoming a rare and precious one.
The artist was a highly successful painter who worked for royalty and other wealthy patrons across Europe in the 17th century. But there was also a private side to his art. He created paintings and drawings of his family, works that were intended to remain in his home rather than go on display. When Rubens died in 1640, his will specified that his self-portraits and portraits of his wives should remain in the family.
1.2. Peter Paul Rubens, Self-portrait with his second wife Helena Fourment (1614–1673), and Their Son Frans (1633–1678), ca. 1635, The MET Museum, New York, oil on wood, 203.8 x 158.1 cm
“Rubens’ paintings of his family members, freer and bolder than those of his wealthy clientele, count amongst his greatest achievements in portraiture," said Henry Pettifer, Head of Old Master Paintings, Christie’s London.
Rubens also made private paintings of his children. He was a prolific father, he had three kids with his first wife Isabella Brant and five with Hélène Fourmont, his second wife. His beloved first child Clara Serena, the only daughter with his first wife Isabella Brant untimely passed away at the age of 12. Little is known about her except that her life was tragically short and her death gave much pain and sorrow to Rubens, who wrote about that to his lifelong friend Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc in a now-lost letter dated 25 October 1623.
The portrait was identified as of Clara Serena's from the sitter’s resemblance to Rubens’s drawing of her mother Isabella Brant at the British Museum and of Clara Serena at the age of five painted circa 1616, from the Liechtenstein Collection.
1.2. Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens, c. 1616. Liechtenstein Collection
You can see clearly that there is something of Brant’s look in Rubens's portrait of the five-year-old Clara Serena and that the portrait of the twelve-year-old girl depicts the same girl, just grown into a teenager.
The portrait of Clara Serena at the age of 12 undoubtedly holds a special place in Rubens's oeuvre. It's filled with a highly personal nature and intimacy shared between father and daughter. The way the girl looks at the viewer was not typical of the baroque portrait painting. The disarming directness in her glance displays the deep affection and full trust between the painter and the sitter. Clara Serena's face is drawn in greater detail than her clothes and background. Focusing mainly on her eyes and a low-key smile, Rubens, nonetheless, transmits the same psychological complexity as in his finished portraits. Some experts thought that it may be a posthumous portrait, painted after Clara Serena died in 1623.
"Since the picture’s restoration, Clara Serena’s resemblance has been firmly acknowledged with two further portraits: a drawing by Rubens in the Albertina in Vienna, and a painting attributed to his studio in the Hermitage in St Petersburg," says Christie's Old Masters specialist Maja Markovic.
1.2. Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of a Chambermaid, mid-1620s. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
The provenance of the Clara Serena's portrait is long and complex and explains its estimated cost at the upcoming Christie's auction.
Until 1947, experts attributed this work to the painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens without any hesitation. However, a layer of green overpaint that covered the canvas prevented the picture from the accurate analysis when in was gifted to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. So, in 2013, the painting was sold as a minor work done by some follower of Rubens at the auction conducted by the Met. The anonymous buyer must have known the painting was likely an original for it was bought at $626,500, that is 30 times surpassing the low Met's estimates between $20,000 and $30,000.
After the new owner had the portrait cleaned of dirt and additional overpaint done by some later restorers, the painting was reassessed by a group of experts and recognized again as an autograph work by Rubens. The transformative restoration gave the owner a chance to sell it at a price 10 times higher than he bought it. Its estimate at Christie's auction on 5 July sale is around $ 6,775,700.
The interest to the portrait was heated by several exhibitions in the last 4 years. First, it was unveiled to the public in 2014 and displayed poignantly alongside the younger portrait of Clara Serena at the Princely Collection of Lichtenstein. The following year, it was shown at the artist's home in the exhibition Rubens in Private at the Rubenshuis in Antwerp. After that, it has been the focus of a dedicated exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. And it will be included in the forthcoming volume of the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard by Katlijne Van der Stighelen, due for publication in 2019.
Though this picture was never intended for public display, Clara Serena’s portrait attracts much of public attention surrounding the upcoming auction at Christie's. The private memory of the most famous artist of the Flemish Baroque was made public and costs a lot in our generation.
Written on materials of christies.com, artdaily.com, architecturaldigest.com, flanderstoday.eu. Title illustration: detail of the Portrait of Clara Serena by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1623.