Sir Peter Paul Rubens



Flemish artist, one of the greatest painters of his age. He was born in Siegen, Westphalia, the son of Jan Rubens, a Protestant lawyer from Antwerp, who had left his home town to escape religious persecution. Most of Peter Paul's childhood, however, was spent in Cologne, where he and his elder brother Philip were encouraged by their learned father to develop their considerable intellectual gifts. In 1589, two years after the death of Jan Rubens, his widow and their children returned to Antwerp, having first officially reconverted to the Catholic faith.

In Antwerp Peter Paul attended a well-known grammar school, leaving in 1590 to become a page to the Countess de Ligne-Arenberg at Oudenarde. Life at this provincial court must have been frustrating to the young man, but it may have taught him lessons in etiquette and diplomacy which were to be valuable in his later career. In 1591 Rubens began his training as a painter: with a kinsman, the landscape artist Tobias Verhaeght (1561–1631); from 1592 with Adam van Noort (1562–1641), also the teacher (and later father-in-law) of Jacob Jordaens; and from c.1594/5 with the erudite Otto van Veen, the most influential of his three teachers and one of the most distinguished artists in Antwerp. The few identified works from this period show the style of van Veen as well as a knowledge of Italian Renaissance prints.

In 1598 Rubens became a master in the Antwerp painters' guild, and in 1600 he left for Italy where he spent eight formative years. Nominally in the service of the Duke of Mantua, he travelled to other cities where he studied the art of classical Antiquity and of his Italian predecessors and contemporaries, and accepted commissions from individual patrons and church authorities. In 1603 he was sent to Spain by the Duke with presents for Philip III and his court. His most important commission in Spain, and his most successful early work, is the Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma (Madrid, Prado), which set the standard for future portraits of this type. Similarly, on visits to Genoa, he painted a series of full-length portraits of the local aristocracy, which were to inspire van Dyck on his visit to that city in 1621 (Washington, NG).

But unlike his northern compatriots, known in Italy primarily for their landscapes and portraits, Rubens established himself successfully as a history painter. At Mantua, he decorated a room with scenes after Virgil's Aeneid (1602, fragments only; Prague, Castle Mus.; Paris, Louvre) and executed three large altar paintings for the new Jesuit church (1604–5; Baptism of Christ; Antwerp, Koninklijk Mus. voor Schone Kunsten; Transfiguration; Nancy, Mus. des Beaux-Arts; Gonzaga Family Adoring the Trinity, fragments only; Mantua, Palazzo Ducale; Vienna, Kunsthist. Mus.). In Rome, he was commissioned twice for altarpieces, first for S. Croce in Gerusalemme (1601–2; now Grasse, chapel of the Municipal Hospital) and then for S. Maria in Valicella (1607; first version in Grenoble, Mus. des Beaux-Arts; 1608; second version in situ).

In 1608 Rubens returned home. Antwerp, at this time, had lost its position as a powerful international centre of trade, but it had become instead the cultural headquarters of the Counter-Reformation in Flanders. It had a lively artistic community and its wealthy burghers, together with the Church and the court at Brussels, provided patrons. This was a desirable setting for an artist of Rubens's stature and talents. In 1609 he was appointed painter to the Archduke Albert of Austria and his wife the Infanta Isabella, the rulers of the Southern Netherlands by appointment from Spain. By his own wish, he did not live at court but established his workshop in Antwerp. In the same year he married Isabella Brant, daughter of one of the city's secretaries. The portrait he painted of himself and his young wife sitting in a honeysuckle bower (Munich, Alte Pin.) reveals something of the intimate side of his life.

Rubens's public activity is attested by an astonishing series of commissions during the years 1609–21. They included two major altarpieces for Antwerp churches, the triptychs with the Raising of the Cross and the Descent from the Cross, the latter for the cathedral (now both Antwerp Cathedral); The Miraculous Draught of Fishes for the church at Malines; the designs for a series of tapestries of the history of Decius Mus, to which van Dyck and Jan Wildens, who were members of Rubens's workshop, contributed (Vaduz, Liechtenstein Coll.); altarpieces and sketches for 39 ceiling paintings for the new Jesuit church at Antwerp. The church was destroyed by fire in 1718 and all the ceiling paintings, which were largely executed by van Dyck, were lost, but the small oil sketches survive, mainly in the Vienna Academy, the Courtauld Institute Galleries, and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Although Rubens continued to paint autograph pictures—portraits of the Regents, of his family and friends, collectors' pictures on biblical or mythological themes, or of exotic animal hunts (for example Munich, Alte Pin.)—many of the public commissions were executed by the studio, working from coloured oil sketches by the master, such as those for the Jesuit ceiling. In 1622 Rubens published Palazzi di Genova, an architectural pattern book of plans and façades to show his countrymen how to replace what he termed their ‘barbaric or Gothic’ style of architecture with one that conformed ‘to rules of the ancient Greeks and Romans’. The house he built for himself in Antwerp helped to popularize the style.

For the Jesuit church Rubens had created not only altarpieces but an entire, and quite novel, interior decoration based on Venetian models, specifically those of Titian and Veronese. In 1622–5 he executed, again with studio aid, a large cycle of paintings glorifying the life of the Queen Mother of France, Marie de Médicis, for her new palace of the Luxembourg (now Paris, Louvre). This was to be paired with a series of paintings extolling Marie's late husband Henri IV, which was never completed (e.g. Florence, Uffizi). The pictorial language Rubens created for the Médicis series—a combination of narrative and allegory—is demonstrated again, this time in a sacred context, in his designs for tapestries representing the Triumph of the Eucharist for the Infanta Isabella's favoured convent in Madrid, the Descalzas Reales (1625–7; tapestries, Madrid, Descalzas Reales; sketches, Chicago, Art Inst.; Cambridge, Fitzwilliam; Bayonne, Mus. Bonnat; Madrid, Prado; and other collections). At this time, he also painted two important altarpieces for Antwerp churches: the Assumption of the Virgin for the high altar in the cathedral and the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints for the church of S. Augustine. Both works, in their greater luminosity and vibrancy, betray the influence of Titian, who was to become the overwhelming artistic experience of Rubens's last years.

In 1626 Rubens's wife Isabella Brant died and the artist became increasingly involved in diplomatic work to promote the reunification of the Netherlands and peace in Europe. Initially sent on secret missions on behalf of the Infanta, he soon found himself in the role of full-fledged diplomat with orders from the Spanish court (see Madrid). His political missions—to Spain in 1628, and to England in 1629–30—resulted not only in a peace treaty between these two countries (though his ultimate goal, the reunification of the Netherlands, was never achieved), but also brought him major decorative commissions from the art-loving monarchs Philip IV and Charles I (see London): for the ceiling of Inigo Jones's Banqueting Hall in Whitehall (completed 1634; London, in situ), and for Philip's hunting lodge near Madrid, the Torre de la Parada, a series of mythological paintings based on Ovid's Metamorphoses (completed, almost entirely by assistants, c.1636–8; ensemble destr.; remaining paintings Madrid, Prado; autograph sketches Brussels, Mus. Royaux; Bayonne, Mus. Bonnat; Rotterdam, Boymans-van Beuningen Mus.; and others). Most significant for Rubens however was his encounter with the works of Titian in the Spanish collections, especially the mythologies the latter painted for Philip II, of which Rubens made painted copies (Madrid, Prado; Knowsley Hall, Merseyside).

The third major cycle on which Rubens worked during the 1630s was the festive decorations he designed for the entry into Antwerp on 17 April 1635 of the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand, the new Regent of the Southern Netherlands. Closer to his heart than either of the large royal commissions, Rubens took the opportunity to plead on behalf of his city's stricken economy in images traditionally reserved for princely flattery (recorded in engravings by Theodoor van Thulden, published 1642, and preserved in a series of oil sketches). His political ideals are more famously evoked in two allegories on the subject of war and peace: Minerva Protecting Peace from Mars (1629–30; London, NG), painted in England for Charles I, and The Horrors of War (c.1637; Florence, Pitti), sent to the Medici court.

In 1630 Rubens remarried, to the young Helena Fourment. She was the epitome of all Rubensian models and appears in many of his late works, not only in portraits but in the guise of various saints and deities. Many of these paintings, especially the portraits and mythologies, are of a more intimate nature than much of Rubens's previous work. Meanwhile he continued to receive public commissions. Besides the great cycles already referred to, he painted altarpieces for churches at home and abroad, among them the altarpiece of S. Ildefonso, with its portraits of the Archduke and the Infanta (c.1631–2; Vienna, Kunsthist. Mus.) But here also one finds the boundaries between the public and the private becoming less distinct as Rubens uses public commissions, such as the decorations for the entry of Ferdinand, to express his personal concerns for the city of Antwerp and his country.

The last four years of his life Rubens spent in quasi semi-retirement in the newly purchased country manor Het Steen (London, NG). Here he painted for his own pleasure an astonishing series of pictures. Especially remarkable are his landscapes with their pioneering observations of light and reflections, weather and atmosphere (London, NG, Wallace Coll., Courtauld Inst. Gal.; Oxford, Ashmolean). His genre scenes are variations on rustic themes first popularized by Pieter Bruegel the elder (the so-called Kermesse flamande, Paris, Louvre), and fantasies on courtly or pastoral love which were the source of the 18th-century fête galante (The Garden of Love; Madrid, Prado).

Rubens's genius encompassed every branch of the visual arts common in the 17th century: he executed singly or with the help of the studio altarpieces and large-scale mural and ceiling decorations for churches or palaces; he painted individual canvases and panels for patrons, the art market, or himself; he furnished designs for tapestries, sculpture, silverwork, and prints (mainly title-pages). His subject matter is far-reaching. Primarily a history painter, he also executed portraits, landscapes, and, to a lesser degree, genre scenes; only still lifes are absent from his œuvre. At the basis of his art as well as his immense production lies draughtsmanship. He came to draw with the brush as with the chalk or pen. The accuracy of his designs enabled assistants to work from them; the assurance and vibrancy of his strokes brings his compositions to life, whether in their preliminary stages or the large canvases and panels executed by studio assistants and retouched by him. The other keystone of his genius was the luminosity of his colour, which was influenced by the Venetians, especially Titian, but inspired by the earlier Flemish tradition. His manner of juxtaposing primary and complementary colours anticipated French 19th-century developments.

Though one of the greatest painters of his age, Rubens did not content himself with painting only. His diplomatic work has already been mentioned, as has his interest in architecture. He was also scholarly, an insatiable reader, collector of books, antiquities, and other works of art. He corresponded on all manner of subjects with the most erudite people in Europe. His letters, as well as the testimony of his contemporaries, present a man of independent mind, strong conviction, impeccable tact, and, in the few surviving personal documents, warm affections. The high degree to which Rubens was valued by his princely patrons is witnessed by the honours and privileges bestowed on him: Archduchess Isabella made him her adviser and confidant; Philip IV appointed him secretary of the Spanish privy council; Charles I knighted him, as did Philip IV. These honours were, of course, connected to his diplomatic activities. Yet it is as painter that Rubens's fame endured throughout the centuries. His work affected not only countless contemporaries but also successive generations of artists even into the 20th century. His portraits became the standard for aristocratic portraiture; his landscapes revolutionized the genre. But is is, above all, his power of conveying energy and emotion through the brilliancy of his colour, the fluency of his brush strokes, and the mastery of his compositions that has proved universal.


Lohse Belkin, K., Rubens (1993).

White, C., Peter Paul Rubens, Man and Artist (1987).