The artwork was first restored in 2009 to coincide with the exhibition "Rooms full of art in seventeenth-century Antwerp". Despite this intervention, which was carried out on the paint layer and the frame, cracks, blisters and crazing appeared in several places ten years later. In April 2019, the painting was transferred to the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in Brussels to be studied and restored by the conservator Aline Genbrugge, who specialises in panels. The research revealed a particularly complex material history. The work became a Flemish masterpiece and was supported financially by the Flemish Community.
Analysis reveals that the central joint was damaged as early as the 18th century. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a number of attempts were made to strengthen the panel. Unfortunately, these interventions caused further damage to the board. Around 1850, a structure of non-flexible wooden slats was applied to the back of the panel using the parquet method. However, this system prevented the natural swelling and shrinking movement of the boards, which, combined with temperature variations, caused further cracking. In 1970, this joint was replaced by cleats. These wooden blocks offered too little support and freedom of movement to the damaged panel, which further damaged the paintwork.
The panel has therefore undergone a complete conservation-restoration treatment. The original paint layer was uncovered, revealing details that had been hidden for many years. The original paint layer has also been revealed underneath old joints and cracks. The eyes of Willem van Haecht, who probably painted himself in the doorway, were restored to their initial colour.
However, the greatest challenge for the restorers has been the structural support of the panel, which suffered damage due to internal stresses. The oak panel consists of seven horizontal planks that contract and expand in opposite directions. This constant internal tension has led to visible joints and damage in the paint layer. To compensate for the cracks and tears, the conservator designed a flexible secondary structure with tapered strips, an innovative technique used in aeronautics. This system ensures optimal flexibility. This system was custom-made for the panel out of Sitka pine. Thanks to its high elasticity, this wood compensates for the movements of the boards without blocking them. A flexible framing system gives the panel optimum freedom of movement. The integrated conditioning system in the frame protects the work from climatic changes. The meticulous restoration of the wooden panel, the flexible support and the climate control system ensure the long-term preservation of this masterpiece for generations to come.
Analysis and discoveries
The Institute's experts first conducted an in-depth study of the painting to determine its precise construction and physical history. The multidisciplinary research - including visual analysis, imaging techniques (UV, IR and X-ray scans), laboratory research and chemical imaging (MA-XRF scan) - revealed that the panel had been enlarged by two boards during the production of the work. These two were added during the signature phase of the painting, which was also modified at that time. The test results show that the small details were painted on a grid allowing an image to be scaled. The researchers were also able to identify the vanishing point of the cabinet. The invisible perspective lines direct the viewer's gaze to Rubens' Battle of the Amazons, a composition Rubens probably painted in 1615 for Van der Geest.
The significance of the Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest
The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest is one of the highlights of the Rubens House collection. The work is a tribute to the Antwerp collector and an important 17th-century pictorial source. New scientific research by Ben van Beneden enriches the understanding of the painting and its multifaceted meaning.
In 2009, in collaboration with The Mauritshuis, which also owns a work by Van Haecht, the Rubens House devoted the exhibition "Rooms full of art in seventeenth-century Antwerp" to painting and the unique genre of the art cabinet, which originated in Antwerp at the beginning of the 17th century. These pictures cover the walls: casts of famous antique statues, tables with bronze statues, albums with drawings and engravings, old coins, globes, and scientific instruments, sometimes complemented by natural treasures, such as rare flowers and shells. In the 'constcamer' ("pictures of collections") there were almost always people, gentlemen - art lovers, artists and other important people - and sometimes a lady who studied the works on display and discussed the subject. The genre was a speciality of the southern Netherlands. One of its founders, Willem van Haecht (1593-1637), mainly painted collections based on those of his patron, the wealthy spice merchant and art collector Cornelis van der Geest (1555-1638). Only three of van Haecht's art cabinets have survived. A fourth painting has been missing since 1936. The three surviving art cabinets by Willem van Haecht are considered the most emblematic of their kind.
The subject of the work is the visit of Archdukes Albert and Isabella to Van der Geest's art cabinet thirteen years earlier. The windows and door of the cabinet offer a view of the Scheldt and the Antwerp harbour district of the time, with the collector's coat of arms and motto on top. Van der Geest's house, which was destroyed at the end of the 19th century, was located near the Steen, a medieval fortress in the old city centre.
The walls are covered with paintings. All of these works are admiringly detailed and, therefore, easily recognisable. Rubens' Battle of the Amazons, for example, bottom left, is now in Munich, while another of his works, Portrait of a Young Man in Armor, top right of the back wall, is in a private collection in New York. A rare piece such as Jan van Eyck's Woman Bathing, depicted by Van Haecht on the side wall, is missing. In addition to the paintings, there is much more to discover in this picture: bronze statues by Giambologna, a cabinet filled with precious Chinese porcelain, an armillary, a globe and numerous other scientific instruments.
Like the paintings, most people in the room are also easily recognisable. Their names can be read as a brief 'who's who' of the cultural elite of 17th-century Antwerp. In the foreground, the collector Van der Geest shows one of his masterpieces, a Madonna and Child by Quinten Massys, to Archdukes Albert and Isabella, Habsburg governors of the Southern Netherlands. Looking over their shoulders, Rubens comments on the work. Anthony van Dyck can also be recognised behind the painting. Humanists such as Burgomaster of Antwerp Nicolaas Rockox and Jan van de Wouwer are depicted in the group behind the archdukes on the left.
Several prominent collectors are gathered around the table with bronze figurines, while on the far right, the painters Jan Wildens, Frans Snijders and Hendrick van Balen are leaning over a globe. For the portraits, Van Haecht based himself on existing paintings of Rubens and Van Dyck, meaning that the artist must have had access to all these portraits. It has been suggested that Rubens and Van Dyck made some of the portraits for the Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest. The involvement of the two masters in the production of the painting was, therefore, probably more significant than previously assumed.
"Long live the spirit"
It is tempting to assume that Rubens was also involved in the complex pictorial content of the painting. On the frieze of the door frame is the art lover's motto: "Long live the spirit", a subtle allusion to his surname (geest being the Dutch word for spirit). This is a tribute to the artistic patronage of an exemplary collector - 'Vive Van der Geest' - whose fame would endure after his death. However, 'spirit' also refers to cognitive and artistic qualities such as insight, ingenuity and judgment. The antique busts of Seneca and his apprentice Nero are probably casts of statues from Rubens' collection and can be interpreted as a reference to Van der Geest's neo-stoic orientation. The painting contains references to the neo-stoic philosophy that had spread throughout Europe. The emphasis was on the virtuous individual who did not allow himself to be carried away by his unreasonable passions but relied on moral qualities such as perseverance to achieve true happiness. Like the Stoic of antiquity, the virtuous man of the seventeenth century devoted his time to high questions, in which the study of antiquity, science and art each had their part to play. In neo-stoic thought, the arts had the potential to elevate one's thoughts and behaviour.
Acquisition of the masterpiece by the Friends of the Rubens House
In 1969, the Friends of the Rubens House successfully purchased The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest for 24,000 pounds at a public auction at Sotheby's in London. This was an important acquisition for the museum due to the Antwerp origin of this particular genre, the quality of the work and its close connection with Rubens.
The story of this acquisition is fascinating. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and the Rockox House were the potential buyers. As the auction approached, these museums withdrew in favour of the Rubens House. Thanks to a special move by the bank, the £23,500 limit for the auction was reached at the very last moment. 20% of the costs were finally paid by voluntary contributions from various institutions and individuals. After a contribution of 60% from the then Dutch Ministry of Culture and 20% from the City of Antwerp, the Friends of the Rubens House donated the painting to the museum.
On 18 March 2005, the painting was placed on the list of masterpieces of the Flemish Community. In May 2021, it was included by the international network of museum curators in the CODART Canon, a list of the 100 greatest masterpieces of Dutch and Flemish art between 1350 and 1750.
Before and after restoration
The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest can be viewed in the Rubens House, Wapper 9-11, 2000 Antwerp.
Tickets for the museum via www.rubenshuis.be.