Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640) | National Gallery, London
early years and italy
rubens was a remarkable person. he was not only an enormously successful painter whose studio produced an astonishing number of works; but he also played an important diplomatic role in seventeenth-century European politics. he was clearly a charming and attractive companion, described as being “tall of stature, stately bearing, face of regular shape, rosy cheeks, brown hair, eyes sparkling but with restrained passion, smiling air, gentle and courteous”. ‘.peter paul rubens was born in siegen in germany, but from the age of 10 he lived and went to school in antwerp. His first job, at the age of 13, was as a court page to a countess. It was a prestigious position for a young man, but Rubens found it stifling and began to train as an artist. as soon as he completed his training, he left for italy to see for himself the great renaissance and classical works that he knew from copies. For eight years he traveled and worked in Spain, copying and incorporating the techniques of Renaissance and Classical art.
in 1608 the news came that rubens’s mother was dying. she left immediately for antwerp, but when she arrived she was dead. Once home, Rubens decided to stay in the city. His reputation had preceded him, and in 1609 at the age of 33 he was appointed court painter to the rulers of the Netherlands, Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella. The following year, he married his own Isabella – Isabella Brandt .rubens could now afford to buy a large house in a posh area of antwerp. he built a large studio to accommodate his students and assistants (he received too many commissions to complete them all without help). he designed it himself in an Italian style. he also added to the house a circular sculpture room, based on the pantheon. Rubens’ main business was altarpieces, especially suitable for an artist who enjoyed working on a large scale. A diligent and disciplined man, he got up at 4 a.m. every day and worked until 5 p.m. before going horseback riding to keep himself in shape. while he painted, he would have someone read him a piece of classical literature. a keen collector of gems, ancient sculptures and coins, and other curiosities (including an Egyptian mummy), the rubens collection became a well-known attraction for visiting dignitaries.
In 1622, Rubens was commissioned to carry out a major project in Paris for the notoriously difficult Maria de Medici, widow of King Henry IV of France. two entire galleries were to be decorated with scenes from the life of the queen and her late husband. the commission was tense. Maria was clumsy and changeable; and her favourite, cardinal richelieu, saw rubens as a political threat. After years of disputes, the project was abandoned half finished when Maria was banished from court.
in 1625 the plague reached antwerp. rubens moved with his family to brussels until the worst happened to him. They then returned to Antwerp where, to Rubens’ horror, his wife fell ill and died, probably of the plague. Usually a man who prided himself on his stoicism, Rubens was devastated by the loss of “someone whom I must love and cherish as long as I live.”
rubens turned to his diplomatic work to distract himself. he spent several months in england where he carried out various commissions for charles i who was a passionate art collector. one of the commissions that ruben was going to carry out for charles was the decoration of the ceiling of his new banqueting house in whitehall.
From the mid-1620s, Rubens became increasingly busy with diplomatic duties. Antwerp, in the southern Netherlands, was part of an empire ruled by Catholic Spain. the northern protestant netherlands were united under dutch rule. both sides hoped to unite the Netherlands under their own rule.
in 1610, a 12-year truce between the dutch and spanish allowed archdukes alberto and isabel to continue their catholic rule in peace and stability. in 1621 the truce came to an end and just at this crucial moment the sovereign archduke albert died. His consort, Isabella, continued as governor but her situation was precarious as Spain, France and England tried to decide with whom and against whom they should ally. rubens was called to negotiate in france and england on behalf of isabella as a representative of the spanish netherlands. as painters often had reason to travel to foreign courts, he was well placed to make secret or sensitive visits without his presence arousing suspicion. He became a close confidante to Isabella and she valued his advice. home’.
after 18 months abroad, rubens tired of the thankless task of doing politicking. he returned to antwerp to see his children and attend to his domestic affairs. he too could devote himself entirely to painting. One of his most important patrons in the 1630s was King Philip IV of Spain, who commissioned more than 80 paintings. In 1630, at the age of 53, Rubens remarried. To everyone’s surprise, he did not marry into the nobility, instead choosing Hélène Fourment, the 16-year-old daughter of a respectable merchant family. Rubens was clearly impressed by his new wife with whom he had five children, and she figures in numerous portraits, including a ‘judgment of paris’ version in which she appears as venus. During his later years, Rubens spent increasing amounts of time with his new, young family at his country home, Chateau de Steen. he began to paint more landscapes, often for his own enjoyment, rather than for sale. After suffering painfully from gout for several years, a particularly severe attack in 1639 left Rubens unable to paint and he died a few months later in May 1640.