Portraits by Rubens

You will find an extensive collection of paintings in the Museum Plantin-Moretus. Nearly half of these are portraits of the family. The painter? Peter Paul Rubens!

Portrait of Balthasar I Moretus (1754/1757) by Balthasar BescheyMuseum Plantin-Moretus

Childhood friend

The museum’s current collection of paintings includes no fewer than 71 portraits among its 151 works. It was the third head of the press, Balthasar I Moretus, who asked his fellow-townsman and childhood friend Peter Paul Rubens to make portraits of his grandparents. On his mother’s side, these were Christophe Plantin and Jeanne Rivière. His parents – Jan I Moretus and Martina Plantin – were also immortalised on canvas by Rubens.

The Grand Salon at the Museum Plantin-MoretusMuseum Plantin-Moretus

Affluent citizens

It was common for affluent citizens to commission portraits of important family members. Family friends were also portrayed, such as the humanist Justus Lipsius. When the head of the family died and the estate was divided – a time when collections were liable to be split up – the portraits always went to the then head of the business. This ensured that the collection was preserved intact. The Moretus family took considerable care over its heritage

Portrait of Christophe Plantin by Peter Paul Rubens by Peter Paul RubensMuseum Plantin-Moretus

Portrait of Christophe Plantin

Peter Paul Rubens was a family friend to Balthasar I Moretus, who commissioned portraits of the Plantin-Moretus family from the baroque painter.

Posthumous portraits

Plantin was already dead when Rubens made his portrait. It dates from 1616, and Plantin died in 1589. For this portrait, Rubens used an existing work that was created in Leiden during Plantin’s life. It too is part of the museum collection.

This portrait belongs to the first series of twelve portraits that Balthasar I Moretus commissioned from Rubens.

It is obvious why Plantin holds a book in his portrait. The compass was part of the business logo, together with the Latin motto Labore et Constantia (‘Through work and constancy’). Moreover, Plantin’s business was called ‘The Golden Compass’.

Portrait of Jan I Moretus by Peter Paul RubensMuseum Plantin-Moretus

Portrait of Jan I Moretus

Balthasar I Moretus commissioned this portrait of his father, Jan Moretus, from Rubens. It belongs to the first series of 12 works that Balthasar I Moretus commissioned from his childhood friend.

First portraits series

The portrait of Jan Moretus belongs to the first series of twelve works that Balthasar I Moretus commissioned from Rubens. This series was painted – according to the accounts – between 1613 and 1616.

Jan Moretus was the son-in-law of Christophe Plantin. Plantin did not have a son himself. Under the terms of his will, the Officina Plantiniana (‘The Golden Compass’) in Antwerp went to Jan Moerentorf, alias Moretus (1543-1610). Moerentorf had married Martina Plantin in 1570.

Portrait of Martine Plantin, Peter Paul Rubens, 1633, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus
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How did Jan Moretus meet his future bride? He started work at the press at the age of fourteen , as an assistant in the bookshop. After his marriage, Moretus became Plantin’s right-hand man and favourite son-in-law. Self-taught, he had a remarkable knowledge of languages. He translated Lipsius’ philosophical work De Constantia among others. Above all, he remained a hard-working businessman who ran the printing house from 1589 until his death in 1610.

The dying Seneca (1613/1616) by Peter Paul RubensMuseum Plantin-Moretus

The dying Seneca

As a humanist, Balthasar I Moretus was a great admirer of Seneca. He commissioned a painting by Rubens of the Roman rhetorician. The suspicious emperor Nero compelled Seneca to commit suicide in 65 AD.

Symbol of humanism

This oil painting by Peter Paul Rubens (panel, 1613-1616) is an indication of the great admiration that Balthasar I Moretus had for Seneca. For him and many other humanists, Seneca’s philosophical and literary works were of great importance. They saw their own ideas and principles expressed in Seneca’s Stoic philosophy.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (circa 5 BC - 65 AD) acquired great fame as a rhetorician in the early Roman Empire. The empress Agrippina appointed him as tutor to the young Nero. During Nero’s reign, Seneca therefore held a position of great power and influence in the Roman Empire. Nero suspected him of participating in a conspiracy against him and forced him to commit suicide in 65 AD.

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