Robert van Belle, Lord of Schonwalle, from southwest Flanders, was the son of Flemish aristocracy. His family over several generations had always occupied high positions in the city of Bruges, whether mayoral or in the alderman’s office. Robert himself was a younger son, and was most active as a Calvinist at a time of great religious unrest. In the late 1560s he fled to England where he continued to support the uprising against Spain from his residence in London. 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 identity of Robert van Belle is confirmed by another portrait of the same sitter, painted two years later than ours, in 1565, by the same artist (hitherto erroneously identified as the work of Pieter Pourbus), at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille. Our portrait can also be closely compared with a portrait of another citizen of Bruges, twenty-two-year-old Adolf van Cortenbach (1540 – 1594)’, (Gemeentemuseum, Helmond), painted by the artist in the exact same year as the present work. In both the portrait of Van Coretenbach and ours of Van Belle, the young men are wearing an identical suit of clothes. This shines a fascinating light on the artistic practices of Antonius Claeissens, the choices he offered his clients and presumably the pattern books from which he worked. Notably, the elongated fingers and peculiarly squared nails of our sitter’s right hand are also mannered in precisely the same way.
The inscription on our portrait is written in an identical format and style to those in various monogrammed works by Pieter Pourbus, and it is no coincidence that Antonius Claeissens trained in the workshop of Pieter Pourbus. This also explains why the aforementioned portraits have erroneously been attributed to Claiessens’ master. Our portrait was itself previously attributed to Gillis Claeissens (1536/37 – 1605), the artist’s elder brother. However, we are grateful to Alexandra Zvereva for confirming the attribution on stylistic grounds to Antonius. His work is characterised by the pronounced and elongated fingers seen in the present portrait, and a close attention to perspective and proportion. Notably, in his small portraits, the sitters’ arms are often exiting the picture plane, as here. The sitters in his portraits have very little expression, as though caught in their own reverie.
Antonius Claeissens was the fourth son of Pieter I Claeissens and Marie Meese. On 17 September 1570 he became a master painter, a few months before his older brother Pieter II.
Antonius was trained by his father, also an artist, and then enter the workshop of Pieter Pourbus, around the same time as Frans Pourbus I. Anotnius was not only stylistically indebted to Pourbus, but the Pourbus workshop practice is very evident in his preparation and underdrawing. 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 ‘vinder’ and dean. And again, like his brothers, he was also a member of the 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 to him for services rendered in both municipal and church accounts. Most of his commissions inevitably came from the Bruges area, and the Spanish families whose portraits he painted (such as the Pardo family, c. 1584, Groeningemuseum, Bruges), were merchants based in Bruges.
On 24 June 1571, Antonius married Elisabeth Roelants; they had several daughters and certainly one son, also known as Pieter IV, who kept up the family tradition by becoming a painter as well. Antonius bought a house on the corner of Sint-Jorisstraat and Augustijnerei, just on the border between the parishes of St. James and St. Giles. He worked for both churches throughout his career. He died on 18 January 1613 and was buried in the St Giles cemetery in Bruges.