Nicolaas Rubens

Portrait of Rubens's son, September 1655

I can hear the ducks and the swans in the moat here in my room where I lie ill in bed. I always pay attention to the calls of the birds. I have done this all my life. My father, Pietro Paolo Rubens, a knight and secretary of the Privy Council in Brussels, used to call me his little imp sometimes.

I was eight when my mother died

I was eight when my mother died. Afterwards papa travelled for years. My elder brother immersed himself in his thick books, and I would play in the stables, feeding my birds in the bird cage and watch our gardener Willem and our coachman Robert work. I really enjoyed this, tending to the animals and watching things grow.

After our mother died, papa painted me and my elder brother. Albert is carrying a thick book. I don't understand how he can spend so much time with these boring, dusty books. I'm holding an ornamental twig with bells in my hand and am playing with a goldfinch. My dear, lovely, tame goldfinch, who used to eat out of my hand. How I cried when I found him dead in his cage one morning.

 

A new mother

When I was twelve, I was introduced to my new mother, who was only four years older than me. At first I had no idea how to behave towards her. She was more of a ravishing sister than a mother. Papa bought his castle, which is called Het Steen. That is where I was happiest, in the fields and in the forests, regardless of the weather.

 

Away from Antwerp

I married a few months after papa's death. I suddenly felt that I needed to leave Antwerp, to get away from the memory of the pain that crippled his painter's hand, away from the inheritance issues and from the new suitors of the Lady Helena.  I married Constantia Helman, whom I've known all my life. She is nine years older than I am. She gives me peace of mind.  I used my inheritance to buy Hof van Rameyen, my own estate. Finally. Along a quiet road in a village. Here my wife and I live a peaceful life, far away from the politics and the intrigues of the city. I can't make small talk about paintings and antique coins. I have no ambitions for a career in Brussels. Yes, I am a country squire. No more, no less.

 

What son could have competed with such a talent?

Did papa have different ideas about my future? He wanted Albert to become a scholar and publish his work. Possibly he hoped that one of us would want to paint. But gentlemen no longer do this to earn a living. And he was such a talented man, what son could ever have competed with him? And what's more, I didn't have the gift. I just content to see reality. It is sufficient that his name lives on in the future, thanks to us. My brother has a son, I have three sons who are alive, my young half-brothers will also marry. The Rubens name will continue for quite some time.

 

I dream of my mother

My brother lives in Brussels, our stepmother lives in Brussels with her new husband. Our family has fallen apart. But Albert is on his way here, the Lady Helena is on her way, because I can feel that this fever will be my last. This illness has been dragging on since last winter. Maybe I don't have to live through another winter. I'm thirty-seven years old. That is not old. My wife enters the room on soft slippers, bringing me my food and telling me about the harvest and our tenants. I'm tired, I fall asleep. I dream of my mother whose face I no longer really remember but I would recognise her voice anywhere. I dream that papa sketches me, in between other work, in his studio. He laughs. My curls are wild because I have just been playing and I am carefree. The swans in the moat burrow their beaks into the water.