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Rubens, Peter Paul

Siegen, Westphalia (Germany), 1577 - Antwerp (Belgium), 1640

No other 17th-century European painter combined artistic talent, social and economic success and a high cultural level like Rubens. Though primarily a painter, he also made numerous designs for prints, tapestries, architecture, sculpture and decorative objects. His abundant work is strikingly versatile in its subject matter, including paintings on mythological, religious and historical subjects as well as portraits and landscapes. His painting is grandiloquent, but he also knew how to be delicate, and his work reveals enormous technical skill and sensitivity to compositional considerations and to the psychology of his personages. Rubens’ success during his lifetime was due to both his art’s capacity to evoke a nostalgia for Antiquity that he shared with his contemporaries, and his skill a offering them an aggrandized image of themselves at a time when the fundaments of European culture were being actively questioned. The Museo del Prado has the largest collection of Rubens’ paintings, and one of the finest as well, and almost all of it comes from Spain’s royal collections. There are also Important groups of his works at the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp, the National Gallery of London, the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, the Musée du Louvre in Paris and the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna. Rubens was born on June 28, 1577 in Siegen, in the German province of Westfalia, where his Cavinist Flemish family had fled to escape religious persecution in Antwerp. In 1578, they moved to Cologne, where the artist lived until his definitive return to Antwerp in 1589. By then, Rubens’ mother had converted to Catholicism, which he shared as a fervent believer in the Church’s cause. For an artist, he had an unusual education. He began learning from his father, Jan Rubens, a lawyer who had studied in Rome and Padua. In 1589, he entered the school of Latinist Rombout Verdonk, where he was trained in Latin and Greek rhetoric and grammar. His elder brother, Phillip, attended the same school and later became an outstanding humanist. The excellence of this education and its classicist and Catholic orientation are clearly visible in Rubens’ abundant correspondence—fundamentally in Italian, but also in French, Flemish and Latin. The ease with which he moved in aristocratic and courtly circles throughout his life was undoubtedly facilitated by all he learned as page to the countess of Ligne-Arenberg, a job he began in 1590. He must already have begun painting by then, as he entered the workshop of local landscape painter Tobias Verhaecht as an apprentice the following year. His most important teacher, however, was Otto van Veen, a painter educated in the classical ideals who had lived in Rome for several years and worked as a court painter for the Spanish governors of the Netherlands in Brussels. Rubens began working with him in 1594 or 1595, and this elder painter’s professional career set an example for the younger artist. Little is known of Rubens’ paintings between his establishment as an independent master in 1598 and his trip to Italy in 1600. He left Antwerp on May 9, 1600 and soon entered the service of Vincenzo I Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, as a court painter. His position in Mantua made it possible for him to live from his work, and it also provided him access to aristocratic collections in different parts of Italy. Rubens dedicated his eight years on the Italian peninsula to an intense study of the arts of the past, especially Greek and Roman statuary and great masters of the Renaissance, such as Raphael and Michelangelo. The city he most frequented in those years was Rome, where he also had his first professional successes. In 1601-1602, he was commissioned to make three altarpiece paintings for the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (the two surviving paintings are now at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Grasse). In 1606 he was commissioned to paint canvases for the altar at the Roman church of Santa Maria in Vallicella. This commission, which he received despite competition from other candidates in Rome, confirmed his standing as one of that city’s leading painters at that time. During his stay in Italy Rubens also made a trip of considerable import for his relations with Spain. In 1603 the Duke of Mantua chose him as an ambassadorial envoy to the court of Philip III in Valladolid. He remained in Spain from September 1603 through some time in the early months of 1604, and during that time, he made an Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma (Museo del Prado) for the king’s favorite. This work is the first example of his skill at painting grandiloquent images of his period’s rulers. In late 1608, however, news of his mother’s illness led Rubens to return to the southern Netherlands, and while he initially intended to return from there to Italy, the “facilities” he encountered in Anwerp led him to remain there, making it his home for the rest of his life. In 1609, Albert VII, Archduke of Austria and Archduchess Isabella Clara of Austria appointed him court painter and they further conceded him the privilege of not having to reside at court in Brussels, which allowed him to remain in Antwerp. On October 3, 1609, Rubens marred Isabella Brant, who belonged to a local high bourgeois family. His beautiful Self Portrait with his Wife (ca. 1609-1610, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) and his portraits of his sons by her (Albert and Nikolas Rubens, ca. 1626, Prince of Liechtenstein Collection, Vaduz) show a family that had adopted the customs and clothing of the most privileged classes. After several decades of war, the Spanish Netherlands began a period of peace in 1609 when the Spanish Monarchy and the United Provinces of the North signed the Twelve Years Truce. That truce led to a national reconstruction that proved advantageous to Rubens, as he began making paintings to decorate churches and the homes and palaces of the aristocracy and high bourgeoisie. In 1609, the city of Antwerp commissioned him to paint the large Adoration of the Magi (Museo del Prado), with was used to decorate the City Hall during the signing of the Twelve Years Truce. It later became a part of King Philip IV’s collection, and in 1628-1629, with the king’s permission, Rubens expanded and retouched it, adding his own self-portrait. In the first years after his return to Antwerp he painted some of the most spectacular altarpiece works ever made, including The Elevation of the Cross (1610-1611, Antwerp Cathedral) and Descent from the Cross (1611-1614, Antwerp Cathedral). At that time, his studio became the most important one in the city, educating numerous painters and contracting excellent young artists such as Van Dyck, who entered his workshop as an assistant in 1616. That was also a period when Rubens collaborated with other outstanding Flemish painters, including Frans Snyders, with whom he painted The Recognition of Phililpoemen (Museo del Prado) and Prometheus (ca. 1612, Philadelphia Museum of Art), among other works. Most of all, however, he collaborated with Jan Brueghel de Velours, in whose paintings he inserted small, delicately rendered figures of the sort that appear in the Five Senses series (1617-1618, Museo del Prado) and on garlands where Rubens painted the figures of the Virgin, the Christ Child and the angels (Musée du Louvre, Paris; Museo del Prado). His enormous success in Antwerp is also exemplified by a commission in 1620 to decorate the Jesuit church in Antwerp with thirty-nine canvases to be affixed to the ceilings of the lateral naves (destroyed in 1718). The size and organization of Rubens’ workshop allowed him to carry out this and numerous other large projects. Part of his success in those years was due to the patronage he received from the Archduke and Duchess. In 1621, Archduke Albert died and Rubens grew closer to his widow, the infanta Isabella, who continued to govern the Spanish Netherlands in the name of her nephew, King Philip IV, until her death in 1633. The artistic consequences of Rubens’ relation with Isabella are significant. She may have been instrumental in his commission to decorate the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, where Maria of Medicis, Queen Mother of France, resided. In 1625 or 1616, the infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia commissioned him to design twenty large tapestries for the convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid, where she had spent some parts of her infancy. The tapestries remain there today. Some of the models that the painter made in preparation for this project arrived in Madrid years later, and are now at the Museo del Prado. The infanta’s patronage continued to produce important artworks, including the Saint Ildephonsus Triptych (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), which was commissioned around 1630 to decorate a chapel at Saint Jacob of Coudenberg, the court church in Brussels. As Isabel Clara Eugenia’s agent, Rubens also found himself involved in a series of diplomatic negotiations aimed at the signing of a peace treaty between Spain and the Netherlands. In 1628, King Philip IV called the painter to Madrid for a briefing on the state of the negotiations. He arrived in August, 1628, and remained until April, 1629. While there, Rubens probably shared a studio at the Alcázar with Velázquez, whose father-in-law, the painter and treatise writer Francisco Pachecho, later described the Flemish artist’s feverish activity in his book, The Art of Painting: “It seems incredible that he could have painted so much in so little time.” And indeed, during his stay in Madrid, Rubens painted around forty works—some at the behest of the king, others for the infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, and others for himself, including numerous copies of Titian’s paintings in the royal collection. Of them all, one stands out for its historical significance. Now lost (there is a copy at the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence), this Equestrian Portrait of Philip IV presented an image of the king surrounded by allegorical figures that extolled his role as a monarchical defender of Catholicism. When completed, this painting was hung in the Alcázar’s most representative hall, replacing an equestrian portrait painted a few years earlier by young Velázquez, who was Philip V’s court painter. This act marked Rubens as the Spanish king’s favorite painter, and that preference was confirmed by numerous commissions he received from the king over the course of the 1630s. At the end of his stay in Madrid, Rubens visited London (1629-1630) and later, The Hague (1631), to continue suing for peace. In London, he was commissioned to decorate The Banqueting House, a large hall belonging to the palatial Whitehall complex. He also painted one of his best-known political allegories for England’s King Charles I: Allegory of Peace (National Gallery, London). Rubens’ first wife had died in 1626, and 1630 he married Helena Fourment, a beautiful young woman of sixteen who became his main source of inspiration during the last decade of his life. He painted various portraits of her (Helena Fourment Seated on a Terrace, ca. 1630-1631, Alte Pinakothek, Munich), and he also drew on her features to define the type of female figure found in most of his paintings from those years, including mythological works such as The Judgment of Paris, which Rubens painted at the behest of Philip IV (Museo del Prado), and religious images, including The Coronation of Saint Catherine (1631, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio). During the final years of his life, Rubens received numerous commissions from Philip IV. Between 1636 and 1638 he made some sixty scenes, mostly mythological, for the king’s Torre de la Parada hunting lodge; and between 1638 and 1640, he painted twenty-two mythological scenes for the monarch’s Alcazar Palace in Madrid (most of the surviving works from this series are at the Museo del Prado). All of these works show the influence that Titian had on Rubens’ style during that period: an approach that gives more importance to a free rendering of the image than to its precise delineation. Rubens had always painted landscapes, but he made particular efforts in this genre during the 1630s. Works such as Landscape with Rainbow (ca.1636, Wallace Collection, London) and Landscape with Het Steen (ca. 1635, National Gallery, London) transmit the artist’s love of the countryside and his profound attunement to the vitality and rhythms of Nature. When he died, on May 30, 1640, there were numerous paintings in his studio. Some were probably unfinished commissions, but others were more personal, and had been made by Rubens with no intention of selling them. This latter group includes one of the most beautiful of his works at the Museo del Prado, The Three Graces, which was almost certainly acquired by Philip IV from the artist’s heirs. Besides his paintings, Rubens also made hundreds of drawings and sketches, which he used to prepare his paintings. These works allow us to appreciate his extraordinary artistic talent. He also made numerous drawings for prints and he contracted and carefully supervised the artists charged with engraving his designs. Moreover, his concern for obtaining the copyrights to his prints exemplifies his rigorous control of the economic aspects of his work. Rubens was knighted by both Philip IV of Spain and Charles I of England. His success in the major European courts and his high social standing were as important as his artistic talent in making him a very influential painter (Vergara, A. in Enciclopedia M.N.P., 2006, VI, pp. 1918-1925).

His self portrait is included in "The Adoration of the Magi" (Museo del Prado P1638).

Artworks (123)

Imposición de la casulla a San Ildefonso
Oil on copperplate, XVII century
Rubens, Pedro Pablo (Workshop of)
Vulcano y el Fuego
Oil on canvas, XVII century
Rubens, Pedro Pablo (Follower of)
Oil on canvas, Early XVII century
Rubens, Pedro Pablo (Follower of)
The Holy Family
Oil on panel, XVII century
Rubens, Pedro Pablo
Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma
Oil on canvas, 1603
Rubens, Pedro Pablo
The Recognition of Phililpoemen
Oil on canvas, Ca. 1609
Rubens, Pedro Pablo; Snyders, Frans
Landscape with Psyche and Jupiter
Oil on canvas, Ca. 1610
Bril, Paul; Rubens, Pedro Pablo
The Judgement of Paris
Oil on panel, 1606 - 1608
Rubens, Pedro Pablo
Saint George and the Dragon
Oil on canvas, 1606 - 1608
Rubens, Pedro Pablo


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