Anthony Van Dyck, Portrait of Isabella Brant, oil on canvas, c1620
Did Isabella Brant and Van Dyck love?
On Monday 28 October The Times, Telegraph, I and many others carried a news story about the possible love-affair of the young painter Anthony Van Dyck with Isabella Brant, the wife of the painter Rubens, as posited in my new novel PAX. There used to be gossip about such a romance, though there is no hard evidence for it.* There are though some curious details in the very beautiful portrait of Isabella Brant – alone – which Van Dyck painted, most probably around 1620. The National Gallery in Washington, where the portrait hangs, says that Van Dyck ‘apparently’ presented the portrait of Isabella to Rubens ‘as a token of his appreciation for all his mentor had done for him’. There is no proof that Van Dyck did give this portrait to Rubens, nor was it recorded in his estate when he died. Also it might surprise anyone to suggest that the best way you can show your gratitude to your mentor is to give him a portrait of his wife which celebrates her royal beauty with no reference to her husband. Van Dyck has placed Isabella on the side of the portrait where the husband regularly sat (to our left as we look at it, turned a little towards the centre), and though some of the things she wears appear in paintings of her by Rubens, in none is she dressed in such golden splendour. Nor, in many portraits by her husband, is Isabella shown with such a sensitive quiet play about her eyes and her mouth.
There is also the odd statue which we see just behind her, standing on a balustrade. The National gallery in Washington, together with other authorities, claim that this statue is Minerva, the Roman goddess of feminine wisdom. And it is true that Rubens had a statue of Minerva in his grounds, and the inclusion of Minerva in the portrait would be one way of honouring Isabella. Only this statue is obviously not Minerva. Not only is it nothing like the statue of Minerva in Rubens’ grounds (which can easily be googled) – it is nothing like any image of the goddess Minerva. The figure looks both male (the right arm) and female (the left leg). It holds high, maybe with menace, a stiletto and the face is strangely veiled and grotesque. You could say, in our idiom, it ‘has attitude’. Certainly it has sexuality, shifting its weight with a distinctly erotic swerve, in an ambiguous pose which, so far as I can see, was made up by Van Dyck for the occasion. One thing is certain. If Van Dyck had given this portrait to Rubens, Rubens would have noticed at once the clear alteration Van Dyck had made to his statuary, and he would have wondered what weird game his most brilliant pupil was playing. This is not a statue of Innocence: to me it suggests that Van Dyck’s feelings for Isabella were in part dark and may have been dangerously sexual and possibly guilty.
A further point. The grand gateway behind Isabella is the gateway Rubens commissioned for his mansion. Van Dyck has represented it exactly – except that he has reversed its design, so that if you look in close, and compare it with photographs of the actual gateway, you can see (for instance) that the weirdly legged female figure in the painting’s top right corner has been carried across from the opposite side. I have wondered whether the reversal of the design is evidence that Van Dyck was away from Antwerp when he made this painting. But it would be odd for him to flip the design simply from forgetfulness. Did he intend a thoughtful spectator, if he paused by this painting, to wonder…?
*It was said that around 1620 when the young Van Dyck (aged 21) was a live-in apprentice in the studio of Rubens (aged 43), Rubens became so jealous that he abruptly gave Van Dyck one of his horses and sent him to Italy to remove him from Isabella (aged 29): see for instance Elbert Hubbard, Little Journeys to the Homes of Eminent Artists (Vol 4, 1899).