The Flemish painter and diplomat Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was not only the unquestioned leader of the Flemish baroque school but one of the supreme geniuses in the history of painting.
During the last troubled decades of the 16th century the Flemish school of painting fell into a kind of tepid and uninventive mannerism which gave little promise of bringing forth a great master. Yet it was in this school that Peter Paul Rubens received his first training as an artist and acquired that belief in the humanistic values of classical antiquity that was to continue undiminished throughout his career.
Within his own lifetime Rubens enjoyed a European reputation which brought him commissions from Italy, Spain, France, England, and Germany as well as from his homeland, the southern Netherlands. His boundless imagination, immense capacity for work, and sheer productivity were legendary. In 1621, when he was not yet 45 years old, an English visitor to Antwerp described him as "the master workman of the world." And at almost the same moment Rubens said of himself, without boasting, "My talent is such that no enterprise, however vast in number and in diversity of subjects, has surpassed my courage." It reveals something of the many-sidedness of this extraordinary man that, without interrupting his artistic activity, he was able to engage in a demanding career of public service and also to conduct an extensive correspondence with learned men on scholarly and archeological matters.
Jan Rubens, the painter's father, was a lawyer of Antwerp who, because he was a Calvinist, fled to Germany in 1568 to escape persecution at the hands of the Spaniards. In Cologne he entered into an adulterous relationship with the wife of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, as a result of which he was thrown into prison. Released after 2 years owing to the devoted and untiring efforts of his wife, Maria Pypelinckx, Jan Rubens was permitted to take up residence at Siegen in Westphalia. It was there that their second son, Peter Paul, was born on June 28, 1577. The family, which had now become Catholic, lived for some years in Cologne until Jan Rubens died in 1587, at which time his widow returned to Antwerp, bringing her three children with her.
After a period of schooling which included instruction in Latin and Greek, the young Rubens became a page to a noblewoman, Marguerite de Ligne, Countess of Lalaing. This early experience of court life, though he was glad to be released from it, was undoubtedly useful to the future artist, much of whose time was to be passed in aristocratic and royal circles. Returning to his home in Antwerp, he now decided to follow the profession of painter. He studied under three masters—Tobias Verhaecht, Adam van Noort, and Otto van Veen—and in 1598 was accepted as a master in the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke, the painters' guild.
Italian Period, 1600-1608
In 1600 Rubens set out on a journey to Italy, where within a short time he entered the service of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, whose palace housed a notable art collection. Since Rubens was not expected to remain always at the ducal court in Mantua, he found time to visit other cities in Italy, especially Rome, Florence, and Genoa. In Rome, Rubens completed his education as an artist, studying with unfailing enthusiasm the sculptures of antiquity and the paintings of the High Renaissance, especially those of Raphael and Michelangelo. During his first sojourn in the papal city (1601-1602) he painted three altarpieces for the Church of Sta Croce in Gerusalemme (now in the Hospital at Grasse).
In 1603 Duke Vincenzo sent Rubens on a diplomatic mission to Spain; here he made the impressive equestrian portrait of the Duke of Lerma and saw for the first time the Spanish royal collection, with its wealth of paintings by Titian.
Late in 1605 Rubens was again in Rome; he now contrived to remain there for almost 3 years. During this time he was commissioned to decorate the high altar of S. Maria in Vallicella—an extraordinary honor for a foreigner. His first solution, an altarpiece showing the Madonna and Child with St. Gregory and other saints (now in the Museum at Grenoble), did not make a good impression owing to unfavorable lighting conditions in the church, and he obligingly replaced it by a set of three pictures painted on slate. In October 1608, before this work had been unveiled, there came word that Rubens's mother was seriously ill, and the artist left at once for Antwerp. Though he did not know it at the time, he was never to see Italy again.
Antwerp Period, 1609-1621
Rubens arrived at his home to learn that his mother had died before he left Rome. Although it was surely his intention to return to Italy, he soon found reasons for remaining in Antwerp. The Archduke Albert and his consort, Isabella, the sovereigns of the Spanish Netherlands, appointed him court painter with special privileges. In October 1609 Rubens married Isabella Brant, and a year later he purchased a house in Antwerp. The charming painting Rubens and His Wife in the Honeysuckle Arbor was painted about this time.
The humanistic atmosphere of Antwerp that appealed so strongly to Rubens is epitomized in the so-called Four Philosophers. In reality this is a commemorative picture representing the late Justus Lipsius, the eminent classical scholar, with two of his pupils, one of whom is Rubens's brother Philip (also recently deceased); the artist himself stands a little to one side, an onlooker rather than a participant in the symposium.
The first big project to be undertaken after Rubens's return from Italy was the Raising of the Cross, a triptych (1609-1611) for the church of St. Walburga (now in the Cathedral of Antwerp). With this bold and intensely dramatic work Rubens at once established himself as the leading master of the city. It was followed by another triptych, equally large and no less successful, the Descent from the Cross (1611-1614) in the Cathedral. Rubens's baroque imagination found new outlets in subjects chosen from both the sacred and profane worlds: in the Great Last Judgment he conjured up an apocalyptic vision of the torments of the damned; the same tempestuous energy is encountered in the artist's hunting pieces, with their ferocious combats of men and wild beasts.
Rubens's workshop was now in full operation, and he was able, with the aid of his pupils and assistants, to achieve an astonishing output of pictures. The ablest and most brilliant of these assistants was Anthony Van Dyck, who entered his studio about 1617/1618 and who undoubtedly helped in the execution of a number of important commissions. Nevertheless it must not be concluded that the master took no responsibility for his paintings but was simply content to let them be carried out by his studio. The principal works exhibit no falling off in quality. Indeed the masterpieces crowd so closely upon one another at this time that it is difficult to select a few representative examples. Of the mythologies the Rape of the Daughters of Leucippusis one of the most dazzling. Among the finest of the ecclesiastical works are the two altarpieces glorifying the first saints of the Jesuit order, the Miracles of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Miracles of St. Francis Xavier, which fairly overwhelm the observer by their huge scale, richness of color, and depth of feeling.
In 1620 Rubens was commissioned to execute a series of 39 ceiling paintings for the Jesuit church in Antwerp. It was the largest decorative cycle that the artist had yet undertaken, and as such it called into play all his powers of invention and organization. The entire complex of ceiling paintings was destroyed by fire in 1718.
International Fame, 1621-1630
The Jesuit cycle was followed by an even larger commission from France. In 1622 Rubens was in Paris to sign a contract for the decoration of two great galleries in the Luxembourg Palace, the residence of the queen mother, Marie de Médicis. The first of these projects, the incomparable series of 21 large canvases illustrating the life of Marie (now in the Louvre, Paris), was finished in 1625. The subject matter was decidedly unpromising, but Rubens, undaunted as always, succeeded in transforming the dreary history of the Queen into one of the most brilliant and most spectacular of all baroque decorative programs. Work on the second cycle, which was to deal with the life of Marie's late husband, King Henry IV, was repeatedly delayed, and Rubens at length gave up the project in disgust.
There were other decorative schemes to occupy Rubens's attention during this period. For King Louis XIII of France he designed the tapestry series, the History of Constantine the Great, and several years later the Infanta Isabella commissioned him to design an even larger tapestry cycle, the Triumph of the Eucharist, for the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid.
Despite his being involved in these and other great undertakings, Rubens found time to paint important altarpieces for churches in Antwerp: the Adoration of the Magi (now in the Antwerp Museum) was made for St. Michael's Abbey in 1624; the Assumption of the Virgin for the high altar of the Cathedral in 1626; and—perhaps the most beautiful of all—the Madonna and Saints (sometimes called the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine) for the church of the Augustinians in 1628. Some of his most memorable portraits also belong to these years. They range from the fresh and luminous Susanna Fourment, known as Le Chapeau de paille, to the stern and masterful Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel.
In Windsor Castle is the famous Self-portrait (1623/1624) which Rubens painted at the request of the Prince of Wales, later King Charles I of England. It shows a strong and handsome face, with bold moustaches and curling hair and beard; the broadbrimmed hat not only lends animation by its sweeping oval shape but serves also to conceal the artist's baldness (about which he seems to have been rather sensitive).
Rubens's diplomatic activity, which had begun some time earlier, reached a peak in the years 1628-1630, when he was instrumental in bringing about peace between England and Spain. As the agent of the Infanta, he went first to Spain, where in addition to carrying out his political duties he found a new and enthusiastic art patron in King Philip IV and renewed his acquaintance with the works of Titian in the royal collection. His mission to England was equally successful. Charles I knighted the artist-diplomat, and the University of Cambridge awarded him an honorary master of arts degree. Rubens returned to Antwerp in March 1630.
Last Years, 1630-1640
Isabella Brant, Rubens's first wife, had died in 1626. In December 1630 he married Helena Fourment, a girl of 16. Though he had hoped, on returning to Antwerp, to withdraw from political life, he was obliged to act once more as confidential agent for the Infanta in the frustrating and unsuccessful negotiations with the Dutch. At length he succeeded in being released from diplomatic employment. In 1635 he purchased a country estate, the Castle of Steen, situated some miles south of Antwerp, and henceforth divided his time between this rural retreat and his studio in town.
In the last decade of his life Rubens's art underwent a surprising expansion in variety and scope of subject matter. The enchanting Garden of Love, with its complex interweaving of the classical and the contemporary, may serve as an illustration. A new interest in nature, inspired perhaps by his residence in the country, found expression in a series of magnificent landscapes, among them the Castle of Steen. The portraits of this period, especially those of his wife, Helena, and their children, are characterized by informality and tender intimacy.
A lyrical quality pervades even the traditional Christian and classical subjects. In the Ildefonso Altarpiece the scene of the saint receiving a vestment from the Virgin Mary is transfigured by a silvery radiance. The secular counterpart to this work is the Feast of Venus, in which Rubens pays tribute both to the art of antiquity and to the paintings of Titian. The almost dreamlike poetry of the late mythologies is beautifully exemplified by the Judgment of Paris and the Three Graces, in which the opulent nudes seem to glow with light and color.
Rubens continued to carry out monumental commissions during his last decade. For Charles I he executed the ceiling paintings of the Banqueting House at Whitehall— the only large-scale decorative cycle by the artist that still remains in the place for which it was designed. In the Whitehall ceiling, which is a glorification of King James I and the Stuart monarchy, the artist profited from the experience gained in the decoration of the Jesuit church some years earlier. In 1635, when the new governor of the Netherlands, Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, made his "joyous entry" into Antwerp, Rubens was given the task of preparing the temporary street decorations. Swiftly mobilizing teams of artists and craftsmen to work from his designs, the master created a stupendous series of painted theaters and triumphal arches which surpassed all expectations by their magnificence. His last great project was the provision of a vast cycle of mythological paintings for the decoration of Philip IV's hunting lodge near Madrid, the Torre de la Parada.
Toward the end of his life Rubens was increasingly troubled by arthritis, which eventually compelled him to give up painting altogether. One of the most moving documents of the last years is the Self-portraitin Vienna, in which the master, though already touched by suffering, wears an air of calm and serenity. He died in Antwerp on May 30, 1640.
Further Reading on Peter Paul Rubens
Rubens's letters are available in a first-rate translation by Ruth S.Magurn, The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens (1955). The standard biography is Max Rooses, Rubens, translated by H. Child (2 vols., 1904), which, although dated in some particulars, remains unsurpassed as a detailed, authoritative, and readable account of the artist and his times. Two shorter biographies, both handsomely illustrated, are recommended: C. V. Wedgwood, The World of Rubens, 1577-1640 (1967), and Christopher White, Rubens and His World (1968). Also enlightening is the lengthy essay by the 19th-century historian Jacob Burckhardt, Recollections of Rubens, translated by M. Hottinger, with an introduction and additional notes by H. Gerson (1950).
On Rubens's drawings, abundant information is in J. S. Held, Rubens: Selected Drawings (1959), and Ludwig Burchard and R.-A. d'Hulst, Rubens Drawings (2 vols., 1963). A scholarly discussion of the influences on Rubens is Wolfgang Stechow, Rubens and the Classical Tradition (1968).