The Snijders & Rockox House stands in a quiet side street just outside the heart of Antwerp. In its day this was a wealthy neighbourhood where many of the prosperous citizens of Antwerp had set up home. So it’s hardly surprising that local residents included Nicolaas Rockox, a wealthy art collector and leading politician, and painter Frans Snijders. Nicolaas’s family had been living in the area for several generations, while in 1620, Frans Snijders, who was twenty years Rockox’ junior, had acquired the house next door.
Today, after a major renovation, the two houses form one single museum, which sheds light on the two contrasting figures who lived here, on life in Antwerp at the beginning of the 17th century and illustrates the richness of the art that was being produced in this city during this period.
Nicolaas Rockox was the scion of an affluent, aristocratic Antwerp family. He served as mayor and was responsible for relations with the court. Much of his wealth he invested in art: commissioning works from painters of the ilk of Peter Paul Rubens and building up quite a collection of his own, exhibited in his home.
Snijders & Rockox House curator Hildegard Van de Velde: “Just to give you an idea of how rich Rockox was: an inventory on his death in 1640 shows he owned 82 paintings. In that day, the collection of the average rich citizen would boast no more than fifteen works. We are fortunate to possess this inventory that lists Rockox’ belongings including the works in his art collection and provides insight into how the family lived and what the various rooms were used for. This has been invaluable in setting out the present museum.”
“Today we find most of the works in Rockox’ collection in the big international museums: a portrait he commissioned by 21-year-old Sir Anthony Van Dyck hangs in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Other works are in the National Gallery in London, the Prado in Madrid and the Louvre in Paris.”
The Snijders & Rockox House participates in an intensive programme of loans with other museums. Works in its collection, which like the museum is owned by the KBC financial group, are much sought after by other museums. Given the value of the works in Nicolaas Rockox’ original collection the museum has sought to illustrate it with works that could easily have belonged to it. Furniture from Nicolaas’s day embellishes the house too.
In the Rockox House we discover what the various spaces were used for. There’s a reception hall that using portraits shows how Nicolaas Rockox, as mayor responsible for relations with outside authorities, would have been networking, with the Church, the judiciary and our rulers, Archdukes Albert and Isabella.
Nicolaas Rockox’ art room shows all the different forms of art in which Antwerp excelled in Nicolaas’ day: a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, one of the most expensive painters of this age, silverware, furniture and ebony artefacts.
Elsewhere we learn how the rich and powerful passed their leisure time, but also see the fairs and taverns where everyday people had their fun!
Paintings, Westerwald stoneware and Chinese porcelain that was starting to arrive here at this time and would provide inspiration in centres like Delft bring the goings on in the Rockox kitchen to life!
On an upper floor the atmosphere of the Rockox’ music room has been recreated with exhibits from the Antwerp Vleeshuis Museum. Instruments from the 17th century collection of the Duartes, a family of rich businesspeople, Jewish converts from Portugal, as well as their music, conjure up a near-magical atmosphere. The collection includes harpsichords and virginals produced in Antwerp by the Ruckers and the Cochets.
Many of the exhibits in the Snijders & Rockox House are on long-term loan. These include a triptych from Antwerp's St James Church that is currently undergoing renovation. The work by Jan Van Hemessen was commissioned by Adriaen Rockox, Nicolaas’s grandfather, for this church. The main panel depicts a ‘Last Judgement’, while the side-panels show Adriaen Rockox and his wife together with their three sons and ten daughters!
Though Nicolaas Rockox and Frans Snijders lived cheek by jowl, in houses side by side, they are very different figures. Hildegard Van de Velde: “Frans Snijders was the son of a taverner and it is here among the revellers and the wedding parties in his father’s establishment that Snijders found the first inspiration for his works. He was twenty years Rockox’ junior, but by 1620 he had acquired such a reputation as a painter that he was able to purchase a home on the Keizerstraat. It is here that he would live, next to Nicolaas Rockox, for a further two decades.”
Like his contemporary Rubens, Snijders had visited Italy and on his return he put the skills he had learned there to good use. Snijders is a master of the still-life. We see the fruits and vegetables that would have adorned the tables of the rich, the game and poultry, but also market and hunt scenes. One magnificent work (detail top) depicts fish sellers and presents the rich variety of sea and river fish available in this bustling conurbation. Still-lifes also remind us of the transience of life.
Hildegard Van de Velde: “Unlike with Rockox we don’t possess any information about the content of Frans Snijders’ home. We opted for a presentation that shows the work of the painters who inspired Frans Snijders, his own works and those of his colleagues, spanning the period from the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 17th century.”
A favourite subject in this day was the ‘Concert of Birds’ possibly inspired by the “Parliament of Birds”, a work by the English author Geoffrey Chaucer.
The Snijders & Rockox House in the Keizerstraat 10 in Antwerp is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10AM till 5PM.