Hendrik van Balen’s interpretation of the Rape of the Sabines in a newly discovered work
The foreground figures in the Rape of the Sabines
avoid such rigidity, which confirms a date after 1616.
Perhaps the closest comparison is with the painter’s
Altarpiece of the Cabinetmakers, dated ca. 1622, which
is remarkably similar to the Rape of the Sabines in its
fuller figures, the large-patterned brocade garment in
the foreground, and the ghostly crowd in the middle
ground, which is painted largely in grisaille (fig. 5).9
The two paintings also share faces with double chins
and large eyes, blond curly-haired children, red
ribbons woven into women’s braided buns, and fabrics
of transparent gauze or shimmering, clinging silk
that are shot with fluid highlights. In short, evidence
supports the conclusion that Van Balen painted the
Rape of the Sabines certainly after 1616, and probably in
the 1620s.10
Fig. 5 / Hendrik van Balen,
Altarpiece of the Cabinet
Makers, The Preaching of
Saint John the Baptist, ca.
1622, 270 x 201 cm, Antwerp,
Cathedral of Our Lady
(on temporary loan from
Brussels, Royal Museums of
Fine Arts of Belgium).
Van Balen was born in Antwerp in 1575 and became
a master there in 1592-1593.11 Many Flemish artists
visited Italy shortly after becoming masters, and
evidence confirms such a trip for Van Balen.12 Not
only was his early style strongly influenced by the
Venetian manner of Rottenhammer, but also Van
Balen was able to join the Guild of Romanists in
1605, which required that members had visited the
tombs of Saints Peter and Paul in Rome.13 The painter
must have returned to Antwerp by 1600, when he
collaborated on a Judgment of Paris, painting the figures
for Jan Brueghel the Elder’s landscape. In 1602-1603
he began accepting apprentices in Antwerp, in 1604
he bought his first house there, and the next year he
married. Financially successful, Van Balen purchased
a larger home in 1622, and the inventory drawn up
after his wife’s death, which shortly followed his own in
1632, reveals his upscale furnishings, large library, and
extensive art collection.14
Van Balen was a leading member of Antwerp’s
cultural and humanist circles. Not only was he dean
of the painter’s guild in 1609, but four years later he
became dean of the Guild of Romanists. This exclusive
organization was limited to twenty-five members who
were drawn from the elite classes: noblemen, canons,
wealthy merchants, councilmen, and prominent
artists.15 Another indication of the high regard in
which Van Balen was held comes from his large
number of apprentices, twenty-seven in all, including
such renowned painters as Frans Snyders and Anthony
van Dyck. Furthermore, for a series illustrating the
Mysteries of the Rosary, which was commissioned in
1615 from eleven leading Antwerp artists, Van Balen
received the highest pay (216 florins). By contrast,
Rubens, Van Dyck, and Jordaens were each paid only
150 florins, even though Van Balen’s contribution, an
Annunciation, had fewer figures.16 Van Balen was also
a prolific painter with an international reputation
whose works were very much in demand. His patrons
included Archbishop Federico Borromeo in Milan,
Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, Prince Frederik
Hendrik in The Hague, the Elector Maximilian I of
Bavaria, Archduchess Isabella and Archdukes Albert
and Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels, and numerous
merchants and other burghers, especially in Antwerp.17
Elizabeth Honig has shown that Van Balen is among
a handful of painters who are the most frequently
represented in Antwerp art collections.18 Yet despite
his immense popularity during his lifetime, Van Balen
is all too often unfairly dismissed by modern scholars.
Erik Larsen, for example, praises his colouring and
modelling, yet terms him “a minor member” of
the generation of Flemish artists who practised late
Mannerism.19 Clearly Van Balen’s contemporaries
would have vehemently disagreed with this assessment.
Hendrik van Balen’s interpretation of the Rape of the Sabines in a newly discovered work


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