Rubens, Peter Paul 1577–1640

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Rubens, Peter Paul

Peter Paul Rubens, who was born in Siegen, Westphalia, on June 28, 1577, is considered the greatest Flemish painter of the seventeenth century. After attending Latin school and during service in a noble household, the young Rubens was enrolled in the Antwerp painter's guild at fourteen and obtained his mastership in 1598. In 1600 he traveled to Italy, where he became court painter in Mantua. He remained there for eight years, returning to Antwerp in late 1608. During his Italian sojourn he studied classical, Renaissance, and contemporary art, rising from a promising talent to a leading representative of the new baroque manner. He obtained major commissions for altarpieces promoting the doctrines of the Catholic Reformation, but his religious imagery did not preclude mythology, allegory, history, and portraiture.

When he settled permanently in Antwerp, Rubens continued to paint these themes, adding hunts and landscapes. He also designed extensive decorative projects—the Antwerp Jesuit church, tapestry sets, and royal commissions for France, Spain, and England—completing at least sixty altarpieces between 1610 and 1620. This output was facilitated by a workshop of unprecedented size; talented assistants, renowned independent artists, and Rubens's own managerial skills and business acumen ensured its success. Taking advantage of the print medium, he engaged gifted graphic artists to make reproductions to promote his fame and disseminate his imagery.

Rubens was a renowned scholar. He owned an extensive library, possessed antiquities (including an Egyptian mummy), and corresponded with a cosmopolitan network of intellectuals and political leaders. More than 250 letters survive. He was proficient in seven languages and cultivated the classics. To create a stage worthy of his social ambitions and to transcend the "mechanical art" he practiced, his residence combined regional Brabantine architecture, robust baroque, and even a "Pantheon" to exhibit choice classical sculpture. His collection comprised more than 1,000 items at his death. A commoner by birth, Rubens was elevated to the nobility and knighted by the kings of Spain and England. His manifold talents were valued by the ruling Habsburgs who appointed him court painter, councillor, and trusted diplomat. In keeping with his rise in social rank he acquired lordships, Steen being the most prestigious. He retired there in the mid-1630s to enjoy his seignorial prerogatives with his second wife, the blond beauty Hélèna Fourment, whom he married in 1630, she sixteen, he fifty-three. Isabella Brant, his wife of seventeen years had died in 1626. Rubens himself died in Antwerp on May 30, 1640, at the age of sixty-three.

Ruben's depiction of the female nude was extraordinarily influential. The voluptuous ideal he fashioned was an amalgam of classical Venus types; Venetian nudes, Titian's especially; live models; proportional systems of Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer; physiognomy; and esoterica, including Cabala, alchemy, and Pythagorean numerology. He was also versed in medicine. This eclectic mix is recorded in notes and drawings mainly compiled in Italy. Although the product of his early years, Rubens continued to follow them later, but as his manner changed so too did their pictorial realization. Two distinct phases can be identified. In the first, the body is robust, firm, and has distinct contours; later, softer roseate dimpled flesh and rippling diaphanous contours are depicted in a more painterly manner with a lighter palette. In both phases adipose tissue is prominent. This fatty matter is a defining characteristic of women, an Aristotelian notion Rubens subscribed to. It is premised on the belief that women are inferior to men because their hearts are smaller; therefore, they do not metabolize ("concoct") efficiently. Consequently women have greater fatty tissue, lactate when nutrient blood becomes milk during pregnancy, and menstruate to expel poisonous impurities. Rubens refers in his writings to the Aristotelian topos (rhetorical topic) that women are blood and milk, and in painting, white and red are the most prominent pigments on a painter's palette depicting women, for instance, in Rubens's Education of Marie de' Medici (Louvre, Paris). Though physiologically inferior, motherhood fulfills female biological destiny. The beautiful, fecund female arouses the male, whose surge of desire initiates copulation. Women are eroticized to emphasize nature's necessity: Sexuality is the imperative vitality that generates progeny.

The same thinking applies to contemporary female rulers Rubens portrayed; their foremost role was to birth a viable heir. When that did not occur, witness, the Archduchess Isabella, then the ruler's dignity was indicated with suitable court attire or the habit of a nun. With respect to gender, Rubens did not transgress male-female boundaries, even in the monumental Marie de Médicis pictures. When Marie is entrusted with the regency and assumes the throne of state, she does not adopt a manly pose; rather, she is a benevolent female figure, the dowager who acts wisely on behalf of the nation she governs. When called upon to perform martial deeds, though armed and equestrian, she rides sidesaddle and her dress is more fanciful than protective. Personifications, however, may have a manly mien, for example, France and Spain, in the Médicis cycle, but a certain courtly ambiguity gives latitude to identifying their sex; the beholder's eye is the ultimate judge.

see also Art; Erotic Art; Nude in Visual Arts.


Belkin, Kristin Lohse. 1998. Rubens. London: Phaidon.

Belkin, Kristin Lohse; Fiona Healy; and Jeffrey M. Muller. 2004. A House of Art: Rubens as Collector. Antwerp, Belgium: Rubenshuis and Rubenianum; Schoten, Belgium: BAI.

Koslow, Susan. 1995. "'How Looked the Gorgon Then …': The Science and Poetics of The Head of Medusa by Rubens and Snyders." In Shop Talk: Studies in Honor of Seymour Slive, ed. Cynthia P. Schneider, William W. Robinson, and Alice I. Davies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums.

Laneyrie-Dagen, Nadeije, ed. 2003. Théorie de la figure humaine [Theory of the human figure], by Pierre Paul Rubens. Paris: Editions Rue d'Ulm.

                                                Susan Koslow