Antwerp Rockox House mounts 'art room' exhibition
Today art collectors are often reluctant to show their collection, but there was a time when owners were so proud of their trophies that they furnished an entire room in their home to show off their works of art to their guests. A visit to the Antwerp Rockox House provides a glimpse of such a 'cabinet of curiosities' or ‘art room’, which became a prized possession in the seventeenth century. Paintings of these cabinets even grew into a genre of its own. Royal collectors thrived throughout Europe, but merchants and rich citizens also purchased art, which was not only cherished as a status symbol or to please the eye, but also as a means of education. Collectors bought works from various periods and combined ancient busts or coins from Antiquity with contemporary paintings. They loved rare shells, fossils and coral as much as they treasured art metalwork, illustrated books, atlases and astronomic instruments. One could therefore safely say these art rooms reflect the true spirit of a time when the world was viewed with fresh eyes. In a city like Antwerp, with its wealthy merchants bent on luxury and influences from foreign lands entered the port, the success of art rooms was evident. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, which will remain closed for serious renovations and extensions until 2018, was inspired by these art rooms when they planned a new temporary home for its paintings in the patrician dwelling of mayor Nicolaas Rockox under the auspicious title Het Gulden Cabinet The Golden Cabinet, referring to a famous book ‘Het Gulden Cabinet van de Edel Vry Schilderconst’ The golden cabinet of the noble art of painting – an anthology of biographies of dozens of artists from the southern Netherlands written by the rhetorician Cornelius de Bie. It’s a feast for the eye to view the museum’s finest pieces in the Rockox House, with both adding to the other’s beauty and highlighted by the fact that Rockox was a good friend and commissioner for Pieter Paul Rubens, the unchallenged star of the Antwerp Museum. A number of pieces from Antwerp’s private collections complete the mood. The chronological presentatation starts with late medieval works like Fouquet’s Madonna and continues to the seventeenth century. Cleverly exhibited as an art room, visitors explore the works as they were seen during their time: closely huddled together in strong contrast to today’s fashion of more sparse mountings. The viewer is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the offering, with works covering walls from floor to ceiling, and sculptures, cabinets with marquetry, corals and coins further enriching the atmosphere.