Painting of Dutch master’s wife ‘suggests love triangle involving artist’

A famous Dutch painting suggests a love triangle involving two giants of 17th century art and the wife of one of them, a Cambridge academic has claimed.

The virtuoso Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck painted the wife of his mentor Peter Paul Rubens in his 1621 artwork Portrait Of Isabella Brant.

The painting was supposedly created to honour Rubens, who is considered to be one of the greatest Flemish painters, but it is claimed that Van Dyck may have left clues of an adulterous romance with Rubens' wife, Brant.

Portrait of Isabella Brant by Anthony Van Dyck (1621). Cambridge academic Dr John Harvey says the image suggests an adulterous romance between Van Dyck and Brant, the wife of Van Dyck's mentor Peter Paul Rubens. (National Gallery of Art, Washington/ PA)
Portrait of Isabella Brant by Anthony Van Dyck (1621). Cambridge academic Dr John Harvey says the image suggests an adulterous romance between Van Dyck and Brant, the wife of Van Dyck's mentor Peter Paul Rubens (National Gallery of Art, Washington/ PA)

Cambridge academic Dr John Harvey began to investigate the story of the image while researching his forthcoming novel Pax, which reimagines episodes from Rubens' life.

The portrait was produced 12 years after Brant married Rubens and is now housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

It is described there as a probable gift from Van Dyck to his mentor, reflecting "the close personal and professional relationship between the two".

But Harvey argues that it was painted without Rubens' knowledge, away from his Antwerp home, and at a time when Van Dyck and Isabella may have been romantically involved.

Harvey said there is also no actual evidence that the painting was ever presented to Rubens, and it was never recorded in Rubens' estate when he died.

"Van Dyck painted it not for Rubens, but himself," Harvey said. "It would surprise anyone, I think, to suggest that the best way you can show gratitude to your mentor is to give him a portrait of his wife that appears to celebrate her royal beauty without any reference to her husband."

An enigmatic figure in the background of the image may, Harvey thinks, be Van Dyck's symbolic admission of "dangerously sexual" feelings about his subject – while other details also hint that he may have been undermining his mentor's marriage.

Brant is positioned facing to the right (her left), which according to the traditions of portraiture at the time, was opposite to where a wife traditionally sat – and would have been recognisable as her husband's 'place'.

Harvey claims this may have been Van Dyck trying to subvert the marriage.

Van Dyck started his career as a precociously talented student at Rubens' studio in Antwerp, and eventually became a court painter for Charles I in London.

In 1620 he left Antwerp suddenly.

This may just have been a career move, but for decades, stories abounded that he had been sent away, possibly because of a burgeoning romance with Brant who, at 29, was much younger than Rubens, 43.

"There is no hard evidence that the affair occurred, but this painting raises some odd questions," Harvey said. "Add it to a cloud of historical gossip that also exists, and it starts to seem likelier that something happened.

"The three of them together represented a situation that was perhaps not uncommon in the world of art and craft studios where a great master, with a younger wife, also had an outstandingly brilliant – and live-in – apprentice.

"There were potential consequences when a young artist or apprentice lived like a favoured son, the great hope of the house, with a married couple where the husband was famous and busy, and his wife was in comparison neglected."

Pax, by John Harvey, is published on October 31.

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