Rubens, Peter Paul 1577–1640 Flemish Painter

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Rubens, Peter Paul
1577–1640 Flemish painter

Peter Paul Rubens was the most successful and influential northern European artist of the 1600s. Following the tradition of the Italian Renaissance masters, he produced glowing paintings of religious and mythological subjects as well as portraits and landscapes. His robust, larger-than-life figures represent the essence of the Baroque* style of art. Rubens also excelled in several other fields—so many that a friend said of him, "Of all his talents, painting is the least." Scholar, humanist*, diplomat, and businessman, Rubens was an outstanding example of a "Renaissance man," someone of great knowledge, ability, and accomplishment in a variety of areas.

Early Career. Rubens's parents fled the Netherlands in the late 1500s to escape religious persecution. Peter Paul was born in the small German town of Siegen, but the family later returned to Antwerp in the Netherlands. There young Rubens received a classical* education. Then he served as an apprentice* to various local painters, including Otto van Veen, the city's leading artist. In 1597 Rubens completed Portrait of a Young Man, his earliest dated work, and was accepted into the painters' guild* the following year.

Many artists from the Netherlands traveled to Italy to study and work. Rubens made the journey in 1600, visiting Venice and Mantua. The following year he arrived in Rome, just as the Baroque style of painting was emerging. Rubens studied the paintings of Italian artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Caravaggio. He also focused on ancient sculpture, which he sketched in such a lifelike manner that the pictures seem drawn from live models rather than marble statues.

In Rome, Rubens accepted a major commission to prepare three large murals for a chapel. He also received his first assignment as a diplomat, when the duke of Mantua asked him to carry gifts to king Philip III, ruler of Spain and the Netherlands. In 1605 Rubens went back to Rome and began an intensive study of classical art and literature. He also began collecting Roman sculpture, coins, and other ancient objects.

When Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1608, he found a peaceful political climate and promising opportunities. He received a commission for a painting called Adoration of the Magi to be placed in the Town Hall. In addition, the local Spanish rulers named him their court painter. Rubens married Isabella Brant and set up a studio in Antwerp. For his own home, he designed a magnificent Italian Renaissance villa* set in the heart of the city.

Rubens completed an enormous number of projects between 1610 and 1620. Among his religious commissions were two triptychs (three-panel pieces), Raising of the Cross and Descent from the Cross. Rubens's extensive output of religious pictures established him as northern Europe's leading artist of Catholic Reformation* themes. However, he also painted many secular* works, including hunting scenes, portraits, and images from history and mythology. His great productivity was partly the result of his large, well-organized studio. Often, Rubens would start a picture by drawing the basic outline in chalk, then his assistants would begin painting, and he would finish it. For one commission, a series of 39 ceiling paintings for a new church in Antwerp, Rubens painted preparatory sketches in oils, leaving other artists to complete the canvases. Although fire later destroyed the paintings, the surviving sketches reveal Rubens's creative genius and lively style.

International Activity. In 1621 Rubens began acting as agent for Spain in peace negotiations between warring sections of the Netherlands. His fame as a painter allowed him to move freely among royal courts. He met with princes and officials, who often discussed politics while posing for their portraits.

The following year Rubens went to Paris to fulfill a commission for a series of scenes celebrating the life of Marie de MÉdicis, former queen of France. Drawing on his broad knowledge of classical mythology and allegory*, the artist sketched grand, dramatic images. His assistants created large paintings based on the sketches, and Rubens added the finishing touches.

When the artist returned to Antwerp, he continued to receive commissions from prominent patrons*. Important paintings of this period include another Adoration of the Magi (1624), surrounded by sculptures designed by Rubens; Ludovicus Nonnius (ca. 1627), a portrait of the painter's friend and physician; and Landscape with Philemon and Baucis (1625), a troubled view of nature with a hint of a rainbow suggesting the return of peace and order. Rubens also designed a series of tapestries that created the illusion of additional tapestries within the larger scene. Based on religious subjects, the series expressed Rubens's Catholic faith.

In 1626 Rubens's wife died, and he set forth on a number of diplomatic* missions. He arranged for England and Spain to exchange ambassadors as a first step toward a formal peace treaty. Eventually Rubens was knighted by these two countries—the only painter to receive this honor from both monarchies. He also received notable commissions, such as painting the ceiling of the banquet hall in England's Whitehall Palace.

Later Career. Back in Antwerp, Rubens married Helena Fourment and retired from diplomatic work to devote his time to his family and to art. He took on several significant projects, such as designing a group of nine arches for the procession of a new ruler through the streets of Antwerp. He also created a vast series of mythological paintings for the hunting lodge of King Philip IV of Spain. To complete the series, Rubens employed most of the artists in Antwerp. He painted more than 60 oil sketches for the paintings, based on tales from Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid. The sketches are some of Rubens's liveliest and most inventive works.

Rubens was troubled with attacks of gout, a disease that causes joint pain, during his final years. Nonetheless, he managed to complete a number of works, including two masterpieces in the late 1630s: Self-Portrait, in which the artist presents himself as a knight, and Het Pelsken, a painting of his wife Helena that offers a view into his private life.

After Rubens's death, his fame spread far beyond the Netherlands. In Italy, the late Baroque painters and the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini studied his style. His work also inspired the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez and various French Baroque painters. Rubens's lasting influence ranks him with earlier Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo, Titian, and Raphael.

(See alsoArt in the Netherlands; Baroque; Netherlands; Spain. )

* Baroque

artistic style of the 1600s characterized by movement, drama, and grandness of scale

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* apprentice

person bound by legal agreement to work for another for a specified period of time in return for instruction in a trade or craft

* guild

association of craft and trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members

* villa

luxurious country home and the land surrounding it

* Catholic Reformation

reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church that focused on spiritual renewal, correcting abuses, and strengthening religious orders; it began in the late Middle Ages and continued throughout the Renaissance

* secular

nonreligious; connected with everyday life

* allegory

literary or artistic device in which characters, events, and settings represent abstract qualities and in which the author intends a different meaning to be read beneath the surface

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

The Creative Life

Some critics and art historians have identified genius with torment, dwelling on the image of solitary artists who struggle against economic, social, and spiritual obstacles to fulfill their lonely vision. Peter Paul Rubens is proof that not all great artists fit this image. Far from being a solitary genius, he was a capable businessman who produced great works in collaboration with many other artists. Successful, happy, respected, a devout Catholic and devoted husband and father, Rubens was a thoroughly balanced man of his time as well as a creative genius.

* diplomatic

having to do with formal relations between nations