Previously covered with a layer of green overpaint, this picture — offered in London on 5 July — is one of only a few surviving portraits by the artist of his daughter Clara Serena, who died aged just 12. Old Masters specialist Maja Markovic tells its story
Until 1947, the attribution of this work to the painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens remained unquestioned. When it was gifted to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1960, however, it was covered with a layer of green overpaint, which prevented accurate analysis of the picture.
In 2013, the Portrait of Clara Serena was deaccessioned by the museum, having been considered as by a follower of Rubens and sold at auction. The present owner, who acquired it for some 30 times the lower estimate of $20,000, then embarked on a subsequent transformative restoration that resulted in the picture being recognised again as an autograph work by Rubens.
Clara Serena’s life was cut tragically short when she died shortly before her 13th birthday. In a letter dated 11-12 February 1624, Rubens’ lifelong friend Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc wrote to him of the pain and sorrow he felt at the loss of the artist’s only daughter. His condolences were in reply to a now-lost letter by Rubens dated 25 October 1623, in which he reported the news to Peiresc in an undated postscript, suggesting that Clara Serena would have died shortly before this date. Peiresc’s letter is the only known evidence of the date of her death. (Rubens would go on to have three further daughters with his second wife).
‘The identification of the portrait stems from the sitter’s resemblance to Rubens’ drawing of her mother, Isabella Brant, on which the art historian Max Rooses also based his identification of the portrait of Clara Serena in the collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein, painted when the girl was around five years old,’ says Old Masters specialist Maja Markovic. ‘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.’
Rubens captures the shimmer of her skin with palpable affection, revealing his presence in the masterful fluidity of his brushstrokes
The cleaning also revealed the delicate tones of Clara Serena’s skin, with impasto layers of milky pink flesh and yellow highlights applied with a fan-shaped, dry badger brush to create sensitive grooves in the paint surface. Rubens captures the shimmer of her skin with palpable affection, revealing his presence in the masterful fluidity of his brushstrokes. A slight reworking of Clara Serena’s hair and right ear, with just a few intelligent, swift strokes, confirms the authentic hand of Rubens.
Dendrochronological analysis of the panel by Dr. Peter Klein also confirmed a felling date of between 1612 and 1622. ‘Taking into account the drying time of the panel and a minimum storage period of around two years,’ says Markovic, ‘he was able to propose that the painting was executed sometime after 1618, supporting the dating of the work and Clara Serena’s suggested age.’
A final, tantalising clue came from the 1639 inventory of the estate of Jan Brant, Rubens’ father-in-law. Listed among his possessions at the time of his death was a small portrait of Clara Serena painted on panel, stored ‘in the large room by the garden’. Yet the following year, in an updated list of goods at his house, the portrait was unaccounted for. ‘This raises the question of what became of the small panel depicting Clara Serena, and if it indeed could be the present picture,’ says the specialist.
In 2014, the restored work was unveiled to the public while on loan to the Prince of Lichtenstein, displayed poignantly alongside the younger portrait of Clara Serena. The following year it returned to the artist’s home in Antwerp, where it featured prominently in the exhibition Rubens in Private at the Rubenshuis in Antwerp, and more recently has been the focus of a dedicated exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. It will be included in the forthcoming volume of the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard by Katlijne Van der Stighelen, due for publication in 2019.