Peter Paul Rubens

From New World Encyclopedia

Peter Paul Rubens.jpg
Birth name Peter Paul Rubens
Born June 28, 1577
Siegen, Westphalia
Died May 30, 1640
Antwerp, Flanders
Nationality Flemish
Field Painting
Movement Baroque

Peter Paul Rubens (June 28, 1577 – May 30, 1640) was a prolific seventeenth-century Flemish painter who is often said to be the greatest of the Northern Baroque artists. This exuberant style emphasized movement, color, sensuality and emotional drama. He is well-known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, and history paintings of mythological and allegorical subjects.

A devout Catholic, Rubens followed other Renaissance artists and writers by combining Christian religious themes and subjects with classical mythology to explore humankind's spiritual and humanistic heritage. Rubens expressed the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, which recognized God's grandeur in the world of nature, depicting the material, sensual world and the naked human form in religious and mythological motifs.

In addition to running a large studio in Antwerp that produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe, Rubens was a classically-educated humanist scholar, art collector, and diplomat who was knighted by both Philip IV, king of Spain, and Charles I, king of England. More than 2,000 paintings have been attributed to Rubens's studio.


"Rubens and Isabella Brant in the Honeysuckle Bower," 1609-1610. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Early life

Rubens was born in Siegen, Westphalia, to Jan Rubens and Maria Pypelincks. His father, a Calvinist, and mother fled Antwerp for Cologne in 1568, after increased religious turmoil and persecution of Protestants during the rule of the Spanish Netherlands by the Duke of Alba. Jan Rubens became the legal advisor to Anna of Saxony, the second wife of William I of Orange, and settled at her court in Siegen in 1570. He was drawn into an illicit relationship with the emotionally unbalanced Anna and suffered imprisonment for the affair. After his release Peter Paul Rubens was born in 1577. The family returned to Cologne the next year. In 1589, two years after his father's death, Rubens moved with his mother to Antwerp, where he was raised Catholic. He remained a devout Catholic throughout his adult life and his faith was to inform much of his work. Religion figured prominently in much of his work and Rubens was to be a leading artistic champion of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.[1]

In Antwerp Rubens received a humanist education, studying Latin and classical literature. By fourteen he began his artistic apprenticeship with the little-known Tobias Verhaeght. Subsequently, he studied under two of the city's leading painters of the time, the late mannerists Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen.[2] Much of his earliest training involved copying earlier artists' works, such as woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger and Marcantonio Raimondi's engravings after Raphael. Rubens completed his education in 1598, at which time he entered the Guild of St. Luke as an independent master.[1]

Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma, 1603, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Painted during Rubens's first trip to Spain in 1603.

Italy (1600–1608)

In 1600, Rubens fulfilled the then popular dream of young artists of traveling to Italy. He stopped first in Venice, where he viewed first-hand paintings by Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto, before settling in Mantua at the court of Duke Vincenzo I of Gonzaga. The coloring and compositions of Veronese and Tintoretto had an immediate effect on Rubens's painting, and his later, mature style was profoundly influenced by Titian.[1] With financial support from the Duke, Rubens traveled to Rome by way of Florence in 1601. There, he studied classical Greek and Roman art and copied works of the Italian masters. The Hellenistic sculpture Laocoön and his Sons with its dramatic sense of pathos was especially influential on him, as was the art of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.[1] He was also influenced by the recent, highly naturalistic paintings by Caravaggio, though it is doubtful that the two very different artists ever met. Rubens refinement would have little in common with the wild, troubled genius of the Italian master. He did however admire his work enough to copy and be influenced by it. During this first stay in Rome, Rubens completed his first altarpiece commission, St. Helena with the True Cross for the Roman church, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

Rubens, a gentleman by nature, patient, charming yet also unyielding when necessary, was often trusted by the nobility as a diplomat. This was unusual for a man who in his words, "lived by the work of my own hands." [3] He was sent to Spain on a diplomatic mission in 1603, delivering gifts from the Gonzagas to the court of Philip III. While there, he viewed the extensive collections of Raphael and Titian that had been collected by Philip II.[1] He also painted an equestrian portrait of the Duke of Lerma during his stay (Prado, Madrid) that demonstrates the influence of works like Titian's Charles V at Mühlberg (1548; Prado, Madrid). This journey marks the first of many during his career that would combine art and diplomacy.

The Virgin and Child Adored by Angels, 1608. Oil on slate and copper. Santa Maria in Vallicella, Rome. This is the central panel depicting The Virgin and Child Adored by Angels at the high altar.

He returned to Italy in 1604, where he remained for the next four years, first in Mantua, and then in Genoa and Rome. During this time he often found himself frustrated, being used as a mere copyist or to paint portraits of pretty courtiers for the worldly, womanizing Gonzaga. In Genoa, Rubens painted numerous remarkable portraits, such as the Marchesa Brigida Spinola-Doria (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), in a style that would influence later paintings by Anthony van Dyck, Joshua Reynolds, and Thomas Gainsborough.[1] He also began a book illustrating the palaces in the city. From 1606 to 1608, he was largely in Rome. During this period Rubens received his most important commission to date for the high altar of the city's most fashionable new church, Santa Maria in Vallicella (or, Chiesa Nuova). The subject was to be St. Gregory the Great and important local saints adoring an icon of the Virgin and Child. The first version, a single canvas (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble), was immediately replaced by a second version on three slate panels that permits the actual miraculous holy image of the "Santa Maria in Vallicella" to be revealed on important feast days by a removable copper cover, also painted by the artist.[4][5]

The impact of Italy on Rubens was great. Besides the artistic influences, he continued to write many of his letters and correspondences in Italian for the rest of his life, signed his name as "Pietro Paolo Rubens," and spoke longingly of returning to the peninsula after his return to Antwerp–a hope that never materialized.[1]

Infante Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566-1633), 1615. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Antwerp (1609–1621)

Upon hearing that his mother was seriously ill in 1608, Rubens departed immediately from Italy for Antwerp. Unfortunately, she died before he made it home. His return coincided with a period of renewed prosperity in the city with the signing of the Treaty of Antwerp in April 1609, which initiated the Twelve Years' Truce. In September of that year Rubens was appointed court painter by Albert and Isabella, the governors of the Low Countries. He received special permission to base his studio in Antwerp, instead of at their court in Brussels, and to also work for other clients. He remained close to the Archduchess Isabella until her death in 1633, and was called upon not only as a painter but also as an ambassador and diplomat. Although Rubens had planned a return to Italy other circumstances intervened to bind him to the Flemish city. Perhaps the greatest of these was his marriage to Isabella Brant, the eighteen year old daughter of a leading Antwerp citizen and humanist Jan Brant.October 3, 1609. The marriage is commemorated in one of Ruben's most charming portraits of himself and Isabella as newlyweds, flush with the confident joy of youth and exquisitely dressed in the best of 17th century elegance. Their happy union was to last until Isabella's untimely death seventeen years later.

Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders, Prometheus Bound, 1611-1612. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 1610, he moved into a new house and studio that he designed. Now the Rubenshuis museum, the Italian-influenced villa in the center of Antwerp contained his workshop, where he and his apprentices made most of the paintings, and his personal art collection and library, both among the most extensive in Antwerp. During this time he built up a studio with numerous students and assistants. His most famous pupil was the young Anthony van Dyck, who soon became the leading Flemish portraitist and collaborated frequently with Rubens. He also frequently collaborated with the many specialists active in the city, including the animal painter Frans Snyders, who contributed the eagle to Prometheus Bound (illustrated left), and his good friend Jan Brueghel the Elder who actually did many of the landscape backgrounds of Ruben's paintings.

The Raising of the Cross, 1610–1611. Central panel. Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp.

Altarpieces such as The Raising of the Cross (1610) and The Descent from the Cross (1611–1614) for the Cathedral of Our Lady were particularly important in establishing Rubens as Flanders' leading painter shortly after his return. The Raising of the Cross, for example, demonstrates the artist's synthesis of Tintoretto's Crucifixion for the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, Michelangelo's dynamic figures, and Rubens's own personal style. This painting is a prime example of High Baroque religious art. The sinewy upward s-curve of the twisting, muscular figures as well as the saturated colors and strong lighting brilliantly reflect this style.[6]

Rubens, best known as a painter, also did woodcuts and produced cartoons (large drawings) to be woven by others into huge tapestries which were hung in various courts throughout Europe. His drawings, though masterful works of art in themselves, were not signed by the artist. They were scattered over many countries after his lifetime. These works, usually done in chalk, show the master's great skill and speed in working out images of the human figure which could then be translated into larger paintings. They provide valuable insight into his thought processes and working methods.

The Exchange of Princesses, from the Marie de' Medici Cycle. Louvre, Paris.

Character and lifestyle

Rubens is often cited as one of the great exceptions to the myth of the troubled, starving artist. During his lifetime he was wealthy and in great demand. His domestic life appears to have been stable, orderly and happy. He was the head of a large household as well as a large studio which employed some of the most skilled artisans of the Netherlands. Large numbers of commissions were executed there, always planned and designed by Rubens but completed with the help of numerous assistants.

A devout Catholic who rose each morning at 4 A.M. to attend mass, he nevertheless took great delight in the material, sensual world around him. His religious and mythological images are peopled with fleshy, buxom women who seem to exude erotic power. His heroic men with their rippling, muscled torsos seem often larger than life. In his frank fascination with the naked human form he is most definitely un-Puritan in his sensibilities, though not out of step with the spirit of the Counter-Reformation which could see aesthetic appreciation of the created world and spiritual feeling as complementary. God's grandeur existed in the world of nature and human beings.

He did not seem to see a contradiction in immersing himself in both heavily religious themes and subjects from 'pagan' classical mythology. This would have been in keeping with his character as a true "Renaissance man" who was well-versed in both traditions. He read widely and travelled widely. He was at home in the most sophisticated circles of European nobility though he ironically sometimes expressed distaste for the affected life of the courts on which he was nevertheless dependent as an artist and diplomat.

The Marie de' Medici Cycle and diplomatic missions (1621–1630)

In 1621, the queen-mother of France, Marie de' Medici, commissioned Rubens to paint two large allegorical cycles celebrating her life and the life of her late husband, Henry IV, for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. The life of Marie de' Medici (now in the Louvre) was installed in 1625, and although he began work on the second series it was never completed.[1][7] Marie was exiled from France in 1630 by her son, Louis XIII, and died in 1642 in the same house in Cologne where Rubens had lived as a child.[1] The twenty one large paintings that comprise The Medici Cycle was a great challenge for Rubens. She was no great beauty and her domestic life was often marred by ugly quarrels with her husband and son. Rubens dealt with this by allegorizing the events of her life, surrounding her with an entourage of gods, goddesses, nymphs and angels. Apparently she was well pleased with the outcome.

After the end of the Twelve Years' Truce in 1621, the Spanish Habsburg rulers entrusted Rubens with a number of diplomatic missions.[1] Between 1627 and 1630, Rubens's diplomatic career was particularly active, and he moved between the courts of Spain and England in an attempt to bring peace between the Spanish Netherlands and the United Provinces. He also made several trips to the Northern Netherlands as both an artist and a diplomat. At the courts he sometimes encountered the attitude that courtiers should not use their hands in any art or trade, but he was also received as a gentleman by many. It was during this period that Rubens was twice knighted, first by Philip IV of Spain in 1624, and then by Charles I of England in 1630. He was also awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Cambridge University in 1629.[1]

The Fall of Man (after Titian), 1628–1629. Prado, Madrid.

Rubens was in Madrid for eight months in 1628–1629. In addition to diplomatic negotiations, he executed several important works for Philip IV and private patrons. He also began a renewed study of Titian's paintings, copying numerous works including the Madrid Fall of Man (1628–1929; illustrated right).[1] During this stay, he befriended the court painter Diego Velázquez. The two planned to travel to Italy together the following year. Rubens, however, returned to Antwerp and Velázquez made the journey without him.[1]

His stay in Antwerp was brief, and he soon traveled on to London. Rubens stayed there until April, 1630. An important work from this period is the Allegory of Peace and War (1629; National Gallery, London).[1]. It illustrates the artist's strong concern for peace, and was given to Charles I as a gift. It is also characteristic of Rubens, and the seventeenth century, that he allegorizes a subject whose brutal realities were all too familiar to him in the war torn Netherlands.

While Rubens's international reputation with collectors and nobility abroad continued to grow during this decade, he and his workshop also continued to paint monumental paintings for local patrons in Antwerp. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary (1625-1626) for the Cathedral of Antwerp is one prominent example.

Portrait of Hélène Fourment (Het Pelsken), c. 1630s. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Last decade (1630–1640)

Rubens's last decade was spent in and around Antwerp. Major works for foreign patrons still occupied him, such as the ceiling paintings for the Banqueting House at Inigo Jones's Palace of Whitehall, but he also explored more personal artistic directions.

In 1630, four years after the death of his first wife, the 53-year-old painter married 16-year-old Hélène Fourment. Though Rubens spoke of the union to friends in the most prudent and sober terms, this was nevertheless considered a bit scandalous even by the standards of four hundred years ago. It has also been noted that his young bride greatly resembled the kind of robust, idealized woman he had already been painting for many years. Hélène inspired the voluptuous figures in many of his paintings from the 1630s, including The Feast of Venus (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), The Three Graces (Prado, Madrid) and The Judgment of Paris (Prado, Madrid). In the latter painting, which was made for the Spanish court, the artist's young wife was recognized by viewers in the figure of Venus. In an intimate portrait of her, Hélène Fourment in a Fur Wrap, also known as Het Pelsken (illustrated left), Rubens's wife is even partially modeled after classical sculptures of the Venus Pudica, such as the Medici Venus.

The Château de Steen with Hunter, ca. 1635-8 (National Gallery, London)

In 1635, Rubens bought an estate outside of Antwerp, the Château de Steen (Het Steen), where he spent much of his time. Landscapes, such as his Château de Steen with Hunter (National Gallery, London; illustrated right) and Farmers Returning from the Fields (Pitti Gallery, Florence), reflect the more personal nature of many of his later works. He also drew upon the Netherlandish traditions of Pieter Bruegel the Elder for inspiration in later works like Flemish Kermis (c. 1630; Louvre, Paris).

On May 30, 1640, Rubens died at age 63 of gout, and was interred in Saint Jacob's church, Antwerp. Between his two marriages the artist had eight children, three with Isabella and five with Hélène; his youngest child was born eight months after his death.

Rubens is known for the frenetic energy and lusty ebullience of his paintings, as typified by the Hippopotamus Hunt (1616).


Rubens was an extremely prolific artist. His commissioned works were mostly religious subjects, "history" paintings, which included mythological subjects, and hunt scenes. He painted portraits, both formal and informal, and in later life painted several landscapes. He is best known for his masterful handling of light flowing over draped or naked human forms in dynamic action. His coloring, especially the subtle variations found in skin tones is unsurpassed. His brilliant effects of light were achieved by a blending of fluid, oily glazes and thick impasto which alternately absorb and reflect. His heavy set heroines of rose and gold, and his muscular heroes are easily recognizable as coming from his brush. Rubens designed tapestries and prints, as well as his own house. He also oversaw the ephemeral decorations of the Joyous Entry into Antwerp by the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand in 1635.

His drawings with their forceful, sinewy lines are precise but not detailed; he also made great use of oil sketches as preparatory studies. He was one of the last major artists to make consistent use of wooden panels as a support medium, even for very large works, but he used canvas as well, especially when the work needed to be sent a long distance. For altarpieces he sometimes painted on slate to reduce reflection problems.


Ruben's workshop has often been referred to as his 'factory'. This is, however, a misleading term when one considers the intimate, hands on' involvement that he had with his projects. In no way were his works mass produced in the modern sense of the word. Paintings can be divided into three categories: those painted by Rubens himself, those which he painted in part (mainly hands and faces), and those he only supervised. He had, as was usual at the time, a large workshop with many apprentices and students, some of whom, such as Anthony Van Dyck, became famous in their own right. He also often sub-contracted elements such as animals or still-life in large compositions to specialists such as Frans Snyders, or other artists such as Jacob Jordaens. Snyders, for example, entirely painted the large eagle found in the painting Promotheus Bound.

The Massacre of the Innocents, c. 1611. Art Gallery of Ontario, on loan to the National Gallery, London.


Rubens, with his flamboyant Baroque style, bold coloring and glowing surfaces was to have many imitators and followers. Anthony van Dyck for example, one of Ruben's most prominent students and collaborators, went on to create many portraits with distinctly Ruben-like characteristics. The French painter Antoine Watteeau, who was born 44 years after Ruben's death greatly admired his work.

As the High Baroque style gave way to the more restrained, linear forms of Neoclassicism, exemplified by artists like Nicolas Poussin, later in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, there came to be the two opposing schools of "Rubenists" and "Poussinists," the latter emphasized line and restraint, the former color and dramatic action. This rivalry went on for hundreds of years in fact and is even sometimes cited today. The great nineteenth century Romanticist, Eugene Delacroix, praised Rubens and echoed his vehement emotion and loose, swirling forms. Some of his subjects, for example his violent hunting scenes, seem in fact very 'Rubension.' Pierre-Auguste Renoir, famous for his sensuous nudes, also studied Rubens intensively.

As many of his paintings feature full-figured, voluptuous women, the word "Rubenesque" (meaning plump or fleshy, yet not "fat," and used exclusively to describe women) has entered European languages.

Value of his works

At a Sotheby's auction on July 10, 2002, Rubens' newly discovered painting Massacre of the Innocents (illustrated right) sold for £49.5million ($76.2 million) to Lord Thomson. It is a current record for an Old Master painting.

Recently in 2006, however, another lost masterpiece by Rubens, The Calydonian Boar Hunt, dating to 1611 or 1612, was sold to the Getty Collection in Paris for an unknown amount. It had been mistakenly attributed to a follower of Rubens for centuries until art experts authenticated it.[2]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 Kristin Lohse Belkin. Rubens. (London, UK: Phaidon Press, 1998).
  2. Julius S. Held. Thoughts on Rubens' Beginnings. (Ringling Museum of Art Journal (1983): 14–35.
  3. Wedgewood, C.V. 1967. The World of Rubens. New York, NY: Time Incorporated.
  4. Michael Jaffé. Rubens and Italy. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977).
  5. Hans Belting. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 1994)
  6. John Rupert Martin. Baroque. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1977).
  7. Julius S. Held. "On the Date and Function of Some Allegorical Sketches by Rubens." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 38 (1975):218–233

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Alpers, Svetlana. 1995. The Making of Rubens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300060106.
  • Anderson, Janice. 1996. The Life and Works of Rubens. Avonmouth, Bristol, UK: Parragon House Limited. ISBN 0765198010.
  • Belkin, Kristin Lohse. 1998. Rubens. London, UK: Phaidon Press. ISBN 0714834122.
  • Belting, Hans, Edmund Jephcott ed. 1994. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226042154.
  • Büttner, Nils. 2006. Herr P.P. Rubens. Göttingen, DE: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 9783525479063.
  • Held, Julius S. 1975. On the Date and Function of Some Allegorical Sketches by Rubens. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 38:218–233.
  • Held, Julius S. 1983. Thoughts on Rubens' Beginnings. Ringling Museum of Art Journal 14–35.
  • Jaffé, Michael. 1977. Rubens and Italy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801410649.
  • Martin, John Rupert. 1977. Baroque. New York, NY: HarperCollins. ISBN 0064300773.
  • Mayor, A. Hyatt. 1971. Prints and People. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691003262.
  • Pauw-De Veen, Lydia de. 1977. Rubens and the graphic arts. Connoisseur CXCV/786:243–251.
  • Scribner, Charles III. 1989. Rubens. New York, NY: Harry n. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0810915693.
  • Sutton, Peter C. and Marjorie Weismann. 2004. Drawn by the Brush - Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300106262.
  • Vlieghe, Hans. 1998. Flemish Art and Architecture 1585-1700. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300070385.
  • Wedgewood, C.V. 1967. The World of Rubens. New York, NY: Time Incorporated.

External links

All links retrieved November 23, 2022.


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