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De kunstkamer van Cornelis van der Geest

How should we read this painting?

Unravelling the gallery

From 15 until 27 August 1615, the Archdukes Albert and Isabella stayed in Antwerp, visiting the famous art collection of Cornelis van der Geest, among others. Thirteen years later, this memorable event became the subject of an extremely ambitious representation, with a detailed, painted inventory of the art treasures in van der Geest’s collection, supplemented with a cornucopia of narrative details.

This work attests the great ambitions of the art gallery painter Willem van Haecht, who was also a talented copyist. The walls of Cornelis van der Geest’s gallery are hung with 43 (!) paintings, 24 of which are still known to us today.

Art lovers, artists and other distinguished guests meet and converse in this imaginary world. They are surrounded by fabulous collections of paintings, sculptures, prints, ancient coins, globes, porcelain and so much more. There is a lot to see in this work and a lot to say about it too. Some highlights:


A unique group portrait

In addition to representing a fabulous ‘constcamer’ or art gallery, this painting is also a unique group portrait. A who’s who of Antwerp’s cultural elite at the time. The observer is afforded a rare glimpse into the world with which an erudite art lover such as Cornelis van der Geest wanted to be associated.

Van der Geest was revered by Rubens. He played an instrumental role in the awarding of the commission to Rubens for the altarpiece The Elevation of the Cross. Rubens thus referred to the art collector as:

“The best of men and my oldest friend, who, since my youth, has been my never-failing patron.”

In the foreground, the proud collector displays a Madonna and Child Kissing by Quentin Massys to the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, the regents of the Southern Netherlands. Apparently, the couple wished to buy the painting but van der Geest was not willing to part with it. Van der Geest obviously cherished this work, as evidenced by the gesture of his left hand.

Peter Paul Rubens is standing behind the Archduke, commenting on the painting’s merits. He is accompanied by Wladyslaw IV Wasa, the King of Poland. Sir Anthony van Dyck was also invited. He stands behind van der Geest, chatting with Jan van Monfort, Antwerp’s mint master. Mayor Nicolaas Rockox, who – like van der Geest – played a seminal role in Rubens’s artistic career, is standing to the left behind the Archduchess.


Van der Geest also cultivated important contacts with other art collectors. Two of them are standing near a table on which valuable collectibles have been arranged. In all likelihood, the man who is bending over to take a closer look at the painting to the right is Jacomo de Cachiopin, who was born into an old Spanish family. The man who nonchalantly rests his elbow on the table and is holding up a portrait miniature is Peeter Stevens. Along with van der Geest, both connoisseurs were featured in van Dyck’s series of portrait prints of famous contemporaries.


At the bottom right, a group of men are studying a globe. One of them holds a compass to measure it. The scientific tools probably refer to the scientific basis of painting.

The two men in the second row, one of whom gazes at us, are the landscape painter Jan Wildens and the animalier and landscape artist Frans Snijders. Rubens regularly collaborated with both of these painters. They painted the landscapes and the animals, while Rubens produced the figures.

The painting features a network of people, who enjoyed looking at art together and discussing it. They are obviously friends, as evidenced by their body language, including placing a hand on someone’s shoulder while gazing at a painting. They all shared a love of painting and all of them had their portraits painted by Rubens or van Dyck. Van Haecht used these paintings as inspiration for the portraits in his gallery picture.


An Antwerp mansion

The scene unfolds against the backdrop of a lavishly appointed room in an Antwerp mansion. Through the window on the left, we see ships sailing up the Scheldt. We can also distinguish the harbour cranes on the Scheldt wharf in a painting by the Antwerp Baroque painter Sebastiaen Vranckx to the right of the door opening.

The walls are covered with paintings and casts of life-sized modern and antique sculptures are arranged around the room. By the door, the Apollo Belvedere welcomes the prominent guests with a sweeping gesture of his arm, possibly a reference to the humanistic ideal that ‘poetry is like painting’. Apollo was the patron god of poetry, after all.


Vive l’Esprit

Long live the spirit. These words are inscribed on the door frame to the right in the painting. Esprit was synonymous of ‘intellectual inspiration’ but also alludes to Cornelis van der Geest’s name (geest being the Dutch word for spirit) and his activities as a patron of the arts.


The sculpted above door wall crest is the art collector’s coat of arms. The skull and the pigeon symbolise the human soul, seemingly indicating that his fame will be preserved for posterity. Seneca’s bust – to the right above the door opening – has since been added to the permanent collection of the Rubens House.

A man stands in the door opening, an enquiring glance on his face. This is probably Willem van Haecht himself. He was both a painter and the curator of van der Geest’s collection. He walks through the door, somewhat reserved, holding his hat in hand, because only crowned heads could cover their head indoors.


An Antwerp sampler

When it came to imitating the various painting styles in van der Geest’s collection, Van Haecht’s virtuosity is unrivalled. He proudly signed and dated a mythological scene that he painted himself, which is on display in the centre of the painting’s foreground.


The oldest work in van der Geest’s art collection was a rare profane painting by Jan van Eyck, which unfortunately no longer exists. The art gallery is mainly a tribute to Antwerp’s painters, with paintings by Rubens and Massys prominently featured in the gallery picture. They also outnumber the other artists: the painting depicts three works by Massys and two by Rubens.


An interesting detail is the curtain that was installed alongside Rubens’s The Battle of the Amazons, to protect it against the sunlight and dust. This only made the viewing of this valuable painting an even more exclusive experience. By positioning the work along the same line as Massys’s Virgin and Child, van Haecht literally aligns Rubens with his famous predecessor.


Van der Geest’s collection is also an excellent sampler of 16th and early 17th century Antwerp painting. Besides works by Massys and Rubens, his collection also included compositions by such artists as Frans Snijders and Jan Wildens. Wildens’s Winter landscape with Hunter draws the attention of an art collector, who kneels to take a closer look at the painting.

On display in the museum

Over the centuries, Cornelis van der Geest’s sizeable art collection has been dispersed among various museums and collections around the world. The Rubens House has two works with a link to his gallery.


Behind the group of people near the table with valuable objects stands a work by Theodoor Rombouts: The Denial of Peter. You can see version of this painting by Gerard Seghers in the Rubens House. The artist painted this work in the style of the Italian painter Caravaggio (just like the work in the gallery picture).

It was recently discovered that Rubens’s painting of Jan Wildens served as inspiration for his portrait in the gallery picture. Jan Wildens stands on the right, among the group of people clustered around the globe. He wears a dark coat, framed by a large white ruff, and gazes at us. Rubens’s portrait is also on display in the museum.