Rubens' Remuneration

for the Eucharists Designs


  • Rubens was paid 30,000 guilders for the 20 designs of the Triumph of the Eucharist series. Or was it florins? And was there a difference?
  • Some historians mention the prices in Car. guilders, others in Carolus guilders. What the heck are those?
  • What would the value of the 30,000 "something" have been in today's world?
  • What did Rubens do with his money?
  • I've heard that he built an Italian palazzo in Antwerp.
  • I've heard that he bought a castle.
  • I've heard that he bought two castles.

The above questions resulted from all your comments on the Bozzetti to Tapestries article.

The report below will address all the above points and include many relevant photos.

Money in the 17th century Netherlands
Let us first trace the guilder back to its origin: Florence.

The "fiorino d'oro" of the Republic of Florence was the first European gold coin struck in sufficient quantities to play a significant commercial role in Europe. It was first struck in 1252. It had 3.5 grams of nominally pure gold (0.1125 troy ounce).

The design of the original Florentine florins was the distinctive fleur-de-lis "flore" badge of the city on one side and on the other a standing, facing figure, of St. John the Baptist wearing a hair shirt. This "flore" coin was called a "florin" or a "golden florin".

As many Florentine banks were international super companies with branches across Europe, the florin quickly became the dominant trade coin of Western Europe for large scale transactions, replacing silver bars in multiples of the mark (a weight unit equal to eight troy ounces), or a pound sterling silver.

In the fourteenth century, a hundred and fifty European states and local coin issuing authorities made their own copies of the florin. However, on other countries' florins, first the inscriptions were changed (from "Florentia" around the fleur, and the name of the saint on the other side), then local heraldic devices were substituted for the fleur de lis. 2

The Netherlands
In 1378, under Count Willem V (not related to Willem of Orange) the Dutch made their own version of the Florence golden florin (in Dutch: "gulden florijn"). Those two words were too long for everyday use. The coin was just called a gulden (guilder) and in the written language for a certain amount, say a 100 guilders, was written as Fl 100. (the FL stood for Florin).
All very similar to a 100 dollars, written $100.

In 1521 Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (in Latin Carolus) introduced the golden Carolus gulden (guilder) and in 1543 the silver Carolus gulden.
This gulden was in use till 1680. 3, 8

Therefore, the names used in literature for money in the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th century -florijn, florin, gulden, guilder, Carolus gulden or guilder, Car. guilder- are all the same unit.

The gulden and the FL sign have been in use until 2002, when the Netherlands, with most European countries, changed their currency to the Euro. €.

What did people earn?
An outdoor laborer earned 6.50 guilders per week or just over 300 guilders per year.
A master carpenter earned 9 guilders per week or just over 450 guilders per year.
Wages did not change for 150 years. 4

A pastor earned 500 guilders per year. Rent free. I have an antique Dutch book and it describes the detailed living expenses of a pastor and his wife on a 500 guilders a year salary. They could not make ends meet. Voor Nederlands: lees de originele tekst onder linker plaatje.

Today, economists find it difficult to express a meaningful correlation factor of cost of living between two very different cities e.g. Miami, Oklahoma and Miami, Florida, let alone find a factor for correlating cost of living between two countries over some 400 years. However, research on inflation and CPI over the period of 1600 to 2000, -as well as rate of exchange and purchasing power- gives us a workable factor of 60. That means that for the rest of this report we'll use: 100 guilders in the 1600s equals US $6,000 in today's money. 11, 12, 13

With that factor, let's review again (now in English here) the pastor's annual living expenses, expressed in today's US dollars.

It shows that regular "burghers" paid over 50% of their income on food (no eating out at all). For clothing they paid a fortune. Therefore they just had one good suit, two coats, two skirts, two sets of underwear and two sets of bed linen. 5

  Yearly   $    

- of which butter
- of which meat and fish
- of which 200 eggs @ $1.20 each
Heating and Light

Books, newspapers, paper, ink
Winter coat (every 20 years)
Man's suit (every 2 years)
Woman's skirt (every 3 years)
Undershirt with sleeves
Two pillow cases

One other aspect stands out: their drinking habits. The pastor and his wife drank two bottles of wine (26 fl.oz), plus 35 bottles of beer (12 fl.oz) every week. That must have been quite normal or otherwise he would not have spelled it out to his congregation.

What did painters earn?
Demand for paintings was very high in the mid 1600s. In 1650 there were 800 registered master painters active in the Northern Netherlands (Holland) and almost 500 in the Southern Netherlands, plus many apprentices, copyists and non-guild painters.

Top artists like Rembrandt received 500 guilders per painting, but for The Nightwatch (look here) he received 1,800 guilders ($108,000), because the 18 civic guards portrayed paid him 100 guilders each.

But if a painter did not belong to the "crème de la crème", and with a mean value of 15 guilders ($900) for all paintings, it implies that a regular painter had to produce 1.5 paintings per week to reach an income of twice that of a master carpenter (after cost of materials and rent of a studio). Mixed in with this were apprentices, who copied their master's paintings. Two copies per week. Those copies were sold for 6 guilders a piece. But even with all those efforts many painters could not make a decent living.

At the end of the 17th century, the average number of paintings per household varied between:
- 41 for the highest class income (with taxable property of over 12,000 guilders)
- 7 for the lowest class of income (taxable property of less than 300 guilders)
- 3.6 paintings per household of rural farmers with 10 milking cows 6

Home prices - Manhattan or Ohio:
Real estate prices (and rents) varied considerably, depending on location. Mortgage interest rates were only 2 - 3 %.
click here
  In 1639 Rembrandt bought a very nice, big home in the middle of Amsterdam for 13,000 guilders ($780,000). 7 Click left pic. My own great-great etc. grandfather's family were fruit growers in rural Holland. They were renting the farm for one guilder per week ($3,100 per year). Then in 1714 Hendrik Willem van Osnabrugge married and bought the farm for 1,060 guilders ($63,600). Click right pic.   click here
van Osnabrugge Farm in 1650

What did Rubens earn?
Rubens' career really started taking off in 1609, after his return from 8 years in Italy. He was 31.
At that time the political and economic situation in the Southern Netherlands had stabilized due to the Twelve-Year Truce. Enormous sums were dedicated to ecclesiastical reconstruction and beautification. The Jesuits alone spent 500,000 guilders ($30 million) on their Antwerp basilica.

Rubens obtained his first big commission already one year after he came back home. It was the Raising of the Cross, a 21 x 10 ft triptych for the church of St. Walpurgis (now in the Cathedral of Antwerp) for 2,600 guilders ($150,000). Average prices for such a commission, until then, were usually 500 guilders ($30,000). It, at once, established Rubens as the leading master of the city.

It was followed with a companion triptych, equally large and no less successful, the Descent from the Cross, in the Cathedral, for another big sum of 2,400 guilders ($144,000). 8

Also, from 1610 onwards Rubens earned a yearly salary of 3,000 guilders ($180,000 p.a.) when he became a court painter -with privileges- to the archdukes Albert and Isabella.

Before the expiry of the Twelve-Year Truce in 1621 Rubens executed more than 60 altar pieces, of which a third for the churches in Antwerp. Yet during this same time Rubens also produced many paintings of secular themes—mythological, historical, and allegorical subjects, hunting scenes, and portraits. The high demand of his work also pushed his prices up. He was so in demand that even with a studio full of assistants behind him, he could not accept all the commissions that came his way. His patrons and clients usually put up with workshop collaboration as long as Rubens' brand prevailed visually and artistically.

Letters in 1618 mention that Rubens was a fast worker. He could do a painting in 5 days.
On average he earned 100 guilders per day. Multiplied by 300 work days per year (no Saturdays off then) amounts to 30,000 guilders ($ 1.8 million) per year. 9

In 1626 he sold his art collection (which he had built up over the years) of antique and Renaissance marbles, alabaster, bronze and ivory statues, gems and paintings by Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Palma Vecchio, Tintoretto, Bassano, Veronese and his own to the Duke of Buckingham for 100,000 guilders ($6 million). 14

But Rubens had also countless expenses: his house, the household staff, assistants, collaborators, materials, decoration and the art work he purchased himself and his travels. 9
He earned more than barons and princes. The annual requirement for a baron and a prince were 6,000 and 14,000 guilders ($360,000 and $840,000) respectively. 8

Rubens total assets at the time of his death in May 1640 were around 150,000 guilders ($9 million), without even counting his real estate. 9 For a detailed breakdown of the wealth of his estate, at the time of his death, read this report.
His real estate was valued at over 130,000 guilders ($8 million)

Therefore, let's look at his real estate:

Rubens' Home(s) and Family Life
Within a year of his return from Italy to Antwerp, Rubens married Isabella Brandt, the daughter of an important Antwerp city official.
Look at their wedding picture. Obviously all Rubens's hand. Click pic.

They bought a home in the center of Antwerp. The property was located on a quiet canal street just off the main bustling commercial boulevard. Rubens purchased it for 10,000 guilders ($600,000).

It was a great deal to pay, but the lot came with a handsome house in the traditional Flemish style -see left- and an adjacent laundry house that, once demolished, would leave enough room for Rubens to build a new wing facing the street and, in addition, a pair of row houses to rent, plus a large back yard for formal gardens.
The old Flemish house was gut renovated, and attached to it Rubens built a small Italianate palazzo to serve as his studio and workshop. The style of this building was something new to Antwerp, a precisely crafted jewel of classic design, based on his drawings of the palaces in Genoa during his stay in Italy.

It was a good 5 years later before Rubens' family could actually move into their new home (they lived at Isabella's parents for that time), and more than a decade later before the artist was finally done tinkering and making alterations. 8p75 By that time he had spent a total of 24,000 guilders ($1.4 million). 9
View a slideshow to see what he bought, his plans and designs and the finished results.

After 16 years of marriage, Isabella died from the plague in 1626. Rubens was devastated. He got more and more involved in politics, but also tried to escape with his children to the countryside. In 1627, when he was 50 years old, Rubens bought a castle in Ekeren, north of Antwerp, and three years later he bought additional land there. Nothing has remained of the building or the surrounding land. The painting depicts a medieval castle in the midst of a park-like landscape. 16

In December 1630, when he was 53, Rubens married the 16-year-old Hélène Fourment, the youngest daughter of a silk and tapestry merchant in Antwerp.
Rubens had given his choice of bride much thought. In a letter to a friend, he writes that he did not choose a noblewoman, as some expected him to do, but a young woman of his own class who would not blush to see him take up his brushes and work. Above all, he found in the youthful Hélène a blond beauty who answered to his ideals.

She inspired him to paint some of his most splendid portraits, and her features can be recognized in countless nudes of the master's works (he loved to paint her as Venus) from the 1630s.
Their marriage was as fruitful as it was blissful, producing five children. Click her pic for a slideshow.

Five years later, at age 58, he bought another castle. A country estate, "Het Steen" in Elewijt, south of Antwerp, closer to Brussels. Rubens paid 93,000 guilders for it ($5.6 million). His beautiful townhouse in Antwerp seemed a 'minor' asset compared to his castle. Click pic on the left for slideshow of the estate.

Every summer they stayed a couple of months on the estate. Here Rubens finally perfected his landscape painting skills. He did some 40 paintings, which permeate with shimmering color and light. It would ensure Rubens' fame as a landscapist, if no other works survived. 17
View a slideshow of landscapes, done in the last years of his life. Click pic.

The End
Rubens suffered terribly from arthritis and gout. He had the last rites administered to him in 1638, but then he got a little better again. But on 30 May 1640 Rubens passed away, leaving behind Hélène with 5 young children and 2 grown-up children from his marriage with Isabella.

How does one end a report like this? The title of this report is Rubens' Remuneration. With all the emphasis on monetary importance. But Rubens was also a family man and was remunerated with loving wives and children, as well as having good friends.
So, I will end with one of Rubens' favorite paintings. A small slideshow of him and Hélène, with family and friends at their Antwerp palazzo.

References: read here

Disclaimer: read here

Willem van Osnabrugge
March, 2012