Hendrik van Balen’s interpretation of
the Rape of the Sabines in a newly discovered work
A previously unpublished monumental painting
by one of the leading masters in early seventeenthcentury Antwerp appeared on the art market in 1996
(fig. 1).1 Recently cleaned, its full power has only now
been revealed. This article, the first in-depth study
of the painting, begins by establishing its attribution,
dating, and subject. Then it considers the panel in ever
widening contexts. How does it fit within the artist’s
oeuvre? Who were its possible patrons? And, finally,
what is the painting’s relationship to the city in which
it was created, a cosmopolitan global trading center,
and to Italy, the culture that produced its subject and
visual sources?
Fig. 1 / Hendrik van
Balen the Elder, Rape of
the Sabines, 1620s, oil
on panel, 174 x 187.4
cm, Collection of David
Dreman and Abraham Joel.
There can be no doubt that the Rape of the Sabines
was painted by Hendrik van Balen. The only
publication on the painting, a brief entry in the 1996
sales catalogue, attributed it to him on the basis of
similarities to two works ascribed to the artist, another
Rape of the Sabines (fig. 2) and a Moses Striking the Rock.2
Although the entry did not specify the nature of
these similarities, the attribution is certainly correct.
Van Balen is known for his small cabinet paintings,
but this very large work – among his largest at 187.4
cm in width – displays his typical style.3 A figure
specialist active in Antwerp in the early seventeenth
century, Van Balen often painted scenes from
Roman mythology that included a great number of
female nudes. As early as 1718, Arnold Houbraken
highlighted Van Balen’s plastic modelling of nudes,
shadowy forms in the foreground, and crowds of
figures in the background, all features that are visible
in the Rape of the Sabines.4 The painting shows other
typical stylistic elements of Van Balen, which were
noted by Hans Vlieghe, such as the “evocative use
of repoussoir figures”, seen in the couple in the right
foreground, and the “effective contrast between
darker and lighter passages”, employed throughout
the composition.5 The Rape of the Sabines also betrays
the painter’s characteristic refined colour scheme,
which includes yellowish ochres, clear blues, and
creamy whites.6 Its composition also resembles the
Israelites in the Desert, designed by Van Balen, but today
only preserved in copies (fig. 3); both show a similar
screen of large figures in the foreground, some cast in
shadow, and a grisaille crowd in the middle ground
set against barren hills.7
Van Balen’s early style, which was greatly influenced
by the German Mannerist Hans Rottenhammer,
shows somewhat isolated nudes who strike complex,
artificial poses and are painted in a precise, detailed
manner in refined colours applied with smooth
brushwork. After December 1608, when Rubens
returned to Antwerp, Van Balen adopted a slightly
larger format and fuller figures who move in a
more natural and lively manner, form more unified
groupings, and are better integrated into their settings.
The Rape of the Sabines is typical of this late period. It
shares with his Rape of Proserpina (fig. 4) the soft faces,
large eyes, fuller bodies, and fluttering drapery that
Bettina Werche, who recently wrote a monograph on
the artist, argues point to a date after 1616, and likely
after 1625.8 Furthermore, Werche notes that around
1616 Van Balen often includes a row of figures in a
single rather rigid plane in the foreground.


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