Isabella Brant was the first wife of the Antwerp master Peter Paul Rubens, whom she married shortly after his return from Italy in 1609. Just before Anthony van Dyck, one-time protégé and frequent collaborator of Rubens, left Antwerp in October 1621 for his own extended stay in Italy, he apparently presented this portrait to his mentor. Given the close personal and professional relationship between Van Dyck and Rubens, it is not surprising that Van Dyck, whose proficiency in portraiture was widely acknowledged at the time, would give a portrait of Rubens's beloved wife as a token of his appreciation for all his mentor had done for him. Van Dyck probably based this boldly executed portrait of Isabella on a likeness Rubens had drawn of his alert and smiling wife around 1620, and it is said that Rubens never ceased to praise Van Dyck's rendition.
The monumental Italianate partition at the entrance to the garden at Rubens's mansion, an Antwerp landmark designed by the artist-owner himself as one of northern Europe's first classically styled structures, provides a fitting setting. Rubens had placed sculptures of Mercury, god of painters, and Minerva, goddess of wisdom and learning, atop the screen. In his portrait, Van Dyck moved the statue of Minerva to an imaginary position behind Isabella's right shoulder, reinforcing the link between his sitter and the goddess. Van Dyck added to Isabella's liveliness and flair through the angled rhythms of the orange-red curtain behind her, the colorful elegance of her red-and-gold dress, the shimmering gold and jeweled chain draped across her chest, and the clouds passing across the blue sky. Isabella Brant died in 1626 at age 34 of the bubonic plague, leaving behind a desolate Rubens and three children.
In 1772, Empress Catherine II of Russia (1729–1796) purchased the portrait as a work by Rubens for her Imperial Hermitage Gallery in Saint Petersburg. It was first correctly attributed to Van Dyck as early as 1895, but the debate about the painting's authorship continued and Isabella Brant entered the collection of Andrew Mellon—and subsequently the National Gallery of Art—as a Rubens, only to receive its final reattribution to Van Dyck in 1976.
Marks and Labels
Pierre Crozat [1665-1740], Paris; by inheritance to his nephews, first to Louis-François Crozat, marquis du Châtel [1691-1750], Paris, and then [on Louis-François' death without a male heir] to Louis-Antoine Crozat, baron de Thiers [1700-1770]; the latter's heirs; purchased 1772, through Denis Diderot [1713-1784] as an intermediary, by Catherine II, empress of Russia [1729-1796], for the Imperial Hermitage Gallery, Saint Petersburg; purchased August 1930, as a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, through (Matthiesen Gallery, Berlin; P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London; and M. Knoedler & Co., New York) by Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; deeded 30 March 1932 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.
- Anthony van Dyck, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1990-1991, no. 23, color repro.
- Von Bruegel bis Rubens: Das goldene Jahrhundert der flämischen Malerei, Wallraf-Richartz-Museums, Cologne; Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp; Kunsthistorischen Museum, Vienna, 1992-1993, no. 61.1 (German cat.), no. 52 (Dutch cat.), repros.
- Van Dyck 1599-1641, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1999, no. 27, repro.
- Isabella Rubens, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, 2003-2004, no cat.
- A House of Art: Rubens as Collector, Rubenshuis, Antwerp, March-June 2004, no. 56, repro.
- Loan for display with permanent collection, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, January-February 2004.
- Rubens & Van Dyck, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, 2010, no. 29, repro.
- Palazzo Rubens. The Master as Architect, Rubenshuis, Antwerp, 2011, no. 57, fig. 129.
- Imperial Hermitage Museum [probably Ernst von Münnich, ed.]. Catalogue des tableaux qui se trouvent dans les Cabinets du Palais Impérial à Saint-Pétersbourg. Based on the 1773 manuscript catalogue. Saint Petersburg, 1774: no. 924, as La premiere femme de Rubens by Rubens.
- Held, Julius S. "Masters of Northern Europe, 1430-1660, in the National Gallery." Art News 40, no. 8 (June 1941): 13, repro
- Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 174-175, no. 47, as by Peter Paul Rubens.
- Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 240, repro. 39, as by Peter Paul Rubens.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Masterpieces of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1944: 90, color repro., as by Peter Paul Rubens.
- L. J. Roggeveen. "De National Gallery of Art te Washington." Phoenix 4, no. 12 (December 1949): 335, 340.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Mellon Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1949 (reprinted 1953 and 1958): 68, repro., as by Peter Paul Rubens.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 172, repro., as by Peter Paul Rubens.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 118, as by Peter Paul Rubens.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:270, color repro., as by Peter Paul Rubens.
- The Women I Love: These Lovely Immigrants Are Part of Our National Treasure.” This Week Magazine (January 9, 1966): 10, color repro. (As by Peter Paul Rubens.)
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 105, repro., as by Peter Paul Rubens.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 312, repro., as by Peter Paul Rubens.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 256, no. 324, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 143, repro.
- Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 95, color repro.
- Held, Julius S. "Van Dyck's Relationship to Rubens." Studies in the History of Art 46 (1994): 75, repro. no. 16.
- Neverov, Oleg, and Mikhail Piotrovsky. The Hermitage: Essays on the History of the Collection. Saint Petersburg, 1997: 170, repro.
- Van der Stighelen, Katlijne van der. Van Dyck. Tielt, België, 1998: -, color repro, details.
- Southgate, M. Therese. The Art of JAMA II: Covers and Essays from The Journal of the American Medical Association. Chicago, 2001: 84-85, 211, color repro.
- Barnes, Susan J. Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings. New Haven, 2004: I.100
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 223, no. 178, color repro.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Flemish Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2005: 35-40, color repro.
- Odom, Anne, and Wendy R. Salmond, eds. Treasures into Tractors: The Selling of Russia's Cultural Heritage, 1918-1938. Washington, D.C., 2009:
- Maesschalck, Dimitri de. Vlaanderen in de kunst. Leuven, 2010:298, color repro.