Robert van Belle, Lord of Schonwalle, was a Flemish aristocrat from southwest Flanders. His family over several generations had occupied high positions in the city of Bruges, whether mayoral or in the alderman’s office. Robert was a younger son, and was an active Calvinist at a time of great religious unrest. In the late 1560s he fled to London, where he continued to support the uprising against invading Catholic forces from Spain. He seems to have earned a living at this time as a merchant, and is recorded in January 1572 as having hijacked a Spanish ship near the Isle of Wight. There is no record of his activities after this year, and it is possible that he died in London.
By repute, in the family of the previous owner since at least the beginning of the twentieth century;
Private collection, Paris, until 2019.
The Weiss Gallery, A Connoisseur's Eye, 2020, cat. 3.
His identity is confirmed by another portrait of Van Belle by the artist, painted some two years later, (hitherto erroneously identified as the work of Pieter Pourbus), at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille. Our painting can also be compared with Claeissens’ portrait of twenty-two-year-old Adolf van Cortenbach (1540 – 1594), (Gemeentemuseum, Helmond), also painted in 1563. In both works the young men are presented in identical suits. This shines a fascinating light on the artistic practices of Antonius Claeissens, and the choices he offered his clients – whether the clothes were props from the artist’s studio, or chosen from a pattern book.
The inscription on our portrait is written in an identical format and style to various monogrammed works by Pieter Pourbus (c.1523 – 1584), in whose workshop Antonius Claeissens trained. As such, works by Antonius have often been attributed to his master, and sometimes even to his elder brother, the better-known artist, Gillis Claiessens (c.1536 – 1605). We are grateful to Dr. Alexandra Zvereva for confirming the attribution of the present painting on stylistic grounds to Antonius, characterised by the sitter’s pronounced and elongated fingers with peculiarly squared nails, and the artist’s close attention to perspective and proportion. Notably, in Antonius’s small portraits, the sitters’ arms are often shown exiting the picture plane, as here.
Antonius Claeissens was the fourth son of the artist Pieter Claeissens I and Marie Meese. He was trained by his father before entering the workshop of Pieter Pourbus, and on 17 September 1570 he became a master painter, a few months before his older brother, Pieter II. Pourbus may have helped Antonius obtain his appointment as the town’s official painter, with an associated income, at which point he set up his own workshop. Like his father and brothers, Gillis and Pieter II, Antonius repeatedly occupied a seat on the painters’ guild council, serving as a dean. Like his brothers, he was also a member of St. Sebastian’s archery guild.
Antonius’s oeuvre has been reconstructed on the basis of signed and dated works and archival evidence. There are records of payments for services rendered in both municipal and church accounts, and most of his private commissions came from the Bruges area – such as the Spanish Pardo family, c.1584, merchants based in Bruges (Groeningemuseum). On 24 June 1571, Antonius married Elisabeth Roelants; they had several daughters and certainly one son, also known as Pieter IV, following in the family tradition by becoming a painter as well. He died on 18 January 1613 and was buried in the St. Giles cemetery in Bruges.
 For further informationon the sitter, see Ludo Vandamme, ‘Een opstandige edelman en zijn geschilderd portret: Robert van Belle, heer van Schonewalle (c.1540–c.1572)’, in: Ge- nootschap voor geschiedenis, no.143/1-2, pp.247-274, 2006.