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Peter Paul Rubens' The Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder

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Peter Paul Rubens' The Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder Empty Peter Paul Rubens' The Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder

Post  eddie Fri Oct 14, 2011 2:23 pm

Tracy Chevalier on The Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder by Peter Paul Rubens

Tracy Chevalier explains how the subjects' hands help her to understand Rubens's portrait of his fellow painter's family, Friday 30 September 2011 22.55 BST

Peter Paul Rubens' The Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder Detail-from-Rubens-portra-007
Family fortunes: detail from Rubens's The Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder. Photograph: ©The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

It's all about the hands.

Most portraits are led by the eyes of their subjects, the look they give revealing their character and mood. In the case of Peter Paul Rubens's The Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder (1613-15), however, the hands of the people in the painting say even more about them and their relationships to one another than their faces do.

Commentaries about this portrait usually describe it as the depiction of an intimate, loving family. Jan Brueghel, painter and friend of Rubens, poses with his second wife, Catherina, and their two children, Peter and Elisabeth. Catherina occupies the centre of the painting, with the children leaning against her, while her husband embraces her. Not only is it unusual for the woman to be central in a Flemish family portrait of the time, but apparently the couple are placed closer together than was the 17th-century convention.

Am I the only viewer who is not convinced that this is a cosy family unit? When I look at the painting my eyes go first to Catherina's calm face, but I am inevitably drawn to that tangle of hands in her lap. Six hands are clearly depicted: the children's and their mother's. Catherina holds her daughter's hand and places her other firmly on her son's shoulder. Daughter Elisabeth lays her free hand on her mother's lap. Son Peter touches his mother's bracelet with one hand and clutches his cloak to him with the other, an oddly adult gesture for a young boy. Mother and children are literally connected through those hands, displaying the need to be protector and protected.

Where are Brueghel's hands? We can make out one, just, in the murky background. Yes, his arm is around his wife – sort of. He is not touching her the way she is her son. Instead his hand rests on the back of something – a sofa, a mantelpiece. It looks uncomfortable. And his other hand is nowhere to be seen, though Rubens could easily have got him to make it visible – placed it on his daughter's shoulder, for instance, so that the family circle of arms would be lovingly balanced and enclosed. The more I look at the hands, the clearer it seems that the father is excluded from the rest of the family.

I begin to see the family members differently, both in their expressions and their body language. Peter, for instance, gives us a fierce, devilish look – staring eyes, flaring nostrils – ready to confront the world. His sister is still too young to look straight at us, but she chooses to gaze at her mother rather than at both parents. Both children ignore their father.

Jan's face pains me, it is so weary and resigned and sad. Some have suggested he was added as an afterthought. If you hold your hand up and block him from view, the painting still works. Indeed, his face is a different colour from the rest, the skin tone further isolating him from his family. Were they painted first, and he added at a separate sitting? That would explain why the children are acting as if he isn't there.

And what of Catherina, with her placid face and her architectural ruffle that serves us up her head? At first I thought she looked calm, but now I am wondering if she doesn't have the slightly pained expression of a woman trying to keep it all together. I'd like to think the Breughels were just going through a bad patch. After all, they went on to have six more children. Ten years later, though, Jan, Peter and Elisabeth all died in a cholera epidemic. I prefer to remain in the present of this portrait, for all its ambivalence. At least then they are all very much alive.

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

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