Hendrik van Balen’s interpretation of the Rape of the Sabines in a newly discovered work
The gallery also includes Italian works; on a foreground
table are bronzes by Giambologna, who was Flemish
born and Antwerp trained, but active from 1550
in Italy. Similarly, Frans Francken the Younger’s
“Preziosenwände”, which depict small collections of
objects, show an overwhelming preference for the work
of his fellow Antwerp artists and often make historical
and allegorical references to Antwerp, but, like Van
Haecht’s painting, sometimes include works produced
in Italy.68 One, dated 1615, depicts a sculpted “heroic”
rape reminiscent of Giambologna’s.69
Van Balen’s Rape of the Sabines is similar to these
paintings in its references to other works of art. What
was the function of such compositions? Elizabeth
Honig argues that a market scene produced in Antwerp
“is in fact a representation not of its ostensible subject
but of its beholder’s artistic knowledge”.70 Victor
Stoichita agrees that just as a painting of an art
cabinet was a site for discussions among those who
were knowledgeable about art, as Van Haecht shows,
some images were intended to spark “entretiens” or
conversations.71 Stoichita writes specifically about
“pictures within pictures” in such self-aware images.
Guided by such theorists as Giorgio Vasari, Karel van
Mander, Peter Paul Rubens, collectors and their guests
could celebrate their taste and knowledge by gathering
before paintings such as Van Balen’s to engage in
conversations about art. Such discussions no doubt
reassured the elite of their own status in society. As
Honig notes, “Antwerp’s upper crust now aspired to the
manners and eventually the status of nobility.”72
In this way, Van Balen’s panel, with its many references
to Italian art, would have represented a challenge to
humanist viewers. But why does he focus on Italian
works rather than those from Antwerp, as Van Haecht
and Francken had done?
Italy held a multifaceted attraction for Flemish artists
and patrons. Rome was a beacon for Catholics,
including Van Balen and probably his patron if he or
she lived in Antwerp, since after the Spanish regained
control of that city, Protestants and Jews were expelled.
Furthermore, humanism had deep roots in Antwerp,
the city of Erasmus and Rubens. Christopher White
has concluded, “So deeply was Rubens imbued with
the ideals of the classical world that to write about the
artist and humanism is to attempt an assessment of
virtually his entire life and art.”73 Antwerp was also a
highly literate city, as a major centre of publishing. For
the numerous amateur classical scholars living there,
Italy represented a hub of learning and culture. Rome
had also long been the goal of Flemish painters who
wished to study ancient and contemporary works of
art. It is not surprising, then, that Van Balen filled his
composition with references to Italian art.
In Italy, in the fifteenth through seventeenth
centuries, the Rape of the Sabines was viewed as
a heroic, patriotic act.74 The rape was considered
essential to the founding of Roman family life and
to the future of the nation. The many Italian images
of this subject aestheticize, glorify, and sanitize the
event (see figs. 9, 11 & 12). Although men are shown
seizing women, they do not use weapons against
them, and little blood is spilled. Depictions of sexual
intercourse are avoided, yet the artists eroticize the
women whose resistance is made clear. They also
often suggest or depict the happy ending: eventually
the Sabines accepted their assailants as husbands and
facilitated peace between the Sabines and Romans.
In doing so, Italian artists portray the ideal traits of
a wife: chastity and submission to one’s husband. But
most Italian representations also make clear the harm
that the Romans inf licted on women, children, and
the elderly.
When Van Balen adopted the theme, he accepted
many of the ideas inherent in it. Like so many earlier
images of the Rape of the Sabines, his panel sanitizes
the story by avoiding the explicit portrayal of sexual
intercourse, by minimizing the use of force, and by
eroticizing the female victims. He displays both front
and back views of the female nude, titillating the
viewer by partially concealing the women’s bodies
with sensual textiles and sheer fabrics. In this way
Hendrik van Balen’s interpretation of the Rape of the Sabines in a newly discovered work
he associates sexual pleasure with violence. Yet he
makes clear the vicious nature of the crime through
the grasped wrist, dishevelled hair, disarrayed
clothing, bleak landscape, and terrified expressions
of the women who try to flee or pull away from their
assailant. Unlike some earlier artists, Van Balen does
not suggest a happy ending, but does clearly show who
paid the steep price for the founding of the nation.
Why wasn’t there more of a change when the subject
moved from Rome to Antwerp? After all, Van Balen
was not portraying the founding of his own nation.
In fact, Antwerp was under Spanish rule at this time.
There is nothing in the painting that explicitly recalls
local history, for example, the Sack of Antwerp by
Spanish soldiers that occurred when Van Balen was a
child. The painter’s approach is typical of the southern
Netherlands, which under the Habsburgs wished to
forget those difficult years.75 Instead Van Balen and
presumably his patron saw themselves as part of an
international group of humanists and art lovers, rather
than as representatives of a particular city or nation.
In 1869, almost forty years after Belgium was founded
as a nation, the Franco-Flemish art historian Alfred
Michiels denied that Van Balen had learned anything of
significance from Italy:
How do these studies [in Italy] serve him [Van
Balen]? They gave him absolutely nothing,
because they didn’t change or add to his
talent, which continued to reflect like a mirror
the calm and precious style of Martin de Vos.
Maybe only the country of Virgil and Horace
communicated to him a more pronounced
taste for mythology and for figures without
clothes … Isn’t it strange that after having
imitated this fashion of the Italian painters, he
didn’t keep any trace of their style?76
Since Belgium seemed to some an artificial creation,
because it lacked a common language or a history of
independent nationhood and was formed in large part
through international diplomacy, rather than citizen
uprising, historians attempted to identify unifying
factors for the new country in its culture.77 This
tendency has persisted in more recent scholarship, for
example, Svetlana Alpers in The Art of Describing, argues
that Italian and northern artists had diametrically
different ways of conceptualizing art.78
Nationality has long been an organizing principle
in the history of art. Museums often display their
collections by country, sometimes even distinguishing
each nationality with a different wall colour. Similarly,
art historians generally specialize in the art of a
particular nation and structure their curriculum
according to national schools. Such practices are
rooted in the history of the discipline. Giorgio Vasari,
often termed the “father of art history”, judged the
greatest art to be that of his native city-state, Florence,
whereas Karel van Mander of Haarlem highlighted
the contributions of artists working north of the Alps.79
Artists, too, contributed to the formation of national
identities, for example, during the early years of the
Dutch republic, the United States, and Israel.80 But
counteracting these nationalistic forces were others
that served to unite patrons, artists, and art historians
across political borders. In early modern Europe,
aristocrats, Catholics, humanists, and merchants were
among those who forged international networks that
facilitated the exchange of art objects and ideas. Artists,
too, often crossed borders, but even those who stayed
home could be exposed to new ideas from abroad if
they lived in cities that were centers for international
trade.81 Although many art historical publications have
explored the transnational aspects of art, they are still
sometimes overlooked today.82 Nicolas Poussin’s Rape
of the Sabines, for example, illustrates a Roman legend
and was painted in Rome, yet the curators of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art oversimplify this history
by displaying it in a room of French art. Similarly,
less famous artists who looked beyond their national
borders for inspiration are often dismissed as derivative.
Van Balen’s Rape of the Sabines, by contrast, reveals the
complexities and fruitfulness of cultural exchange.


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