Siegen, Nassau, Westphalia
Peter Paul Rubens was the most renowned northern European artist of his day, and is now widely recognized as one of the foremost painters in Western art history. By completing the fusion of the realistic tradition of Flemish painting with the imaginative freedom and classical themes of Italian Renaissance painting, he fundamentally revitalized and redirected northern European painting. Masterpieces include portraits and landscapes, although he is perhaps best known for his religious and mythological compositions. While only one etching is attributed to his hand, he employed reproductive printmakers to create engravings and woodcuts after his paintings, which were widely circulated throughout Europe and influenced generations of artists. His parents were wealthy members of Antwerp’s bourgeoisie, who as Protestants fled to Cologne from Antwerp in 1568. Rubens was born in 1577 while the family lived in the nearby town of Siegen. His mother moved the family back to Antwerp after his father’s death in 1587. Rubens received an excellent education, particularly in the classics, and discovered a talent for languages, mastering six. He was apprenticed from 1591 to three Antwerp painters, Tobias Verhaecht (1561-1631), Adam van Noort (1562-1641) and Oto van Veen (1556-1629); the last was one of the leading Antwerp artists of the time. Rubens became enrolled as a master in the artist’s Guild of St. Luke in 1598. In May 1600 he traveled to Italy, first to Venice and then to Mantua, having secured the position as painter to the court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga I (1562-1612). This engagement allowed him to travel to Rome, Genoa and Florence and to receive commissions from other patrons, including works for churches in Rome, Genoa and Mantua. The Duke sent Rubens to Spain in 1603 to deliver gifts to King Philip III, his first diplomatic mission, where he received additional commissions. While in Italy and Spain Rubens studied from classical antiquity and the Renaissance and made drawings that he kept for reference for the rest of his life. His achievements in Italy led to commissions after he returned to Antwerp in 1608. The Archduke Albert (1559-1621) and Infanta Isabella (1566-1633), the Spanish Hapsburg governors of the Southern Netherlands, appointed him court painter the next year, leading to more commissions. Prosperity during the Twelve-year Truce (1609-1621) between the Dutch Republic and Spain, reconstruction of war-damaged buildings and the new Catholic doctrines promulgated by the Council of Trent all led to abundant work for Rubens. Rubens created many of his finest works during the decade following his return. Prosperous, Rubens married Isabella Brandt (1591-1626) from a wealthy family in 1609. They bought a large house on the Wapper in 1611, which Rubens expanded into a mansion during the following years. To meet the demand for his art, Rubens maintained a staff of apprentices and assistants. While Rubens created many works on his own, his studio assistants often executed the final paintings based on an oil sketch and detailed figure studies by Rubens, sometimes with retouching by the master. This process enabled him to create large groups of paintings, such as 39 for a new church in Antwerp (destroyed by fire) and 21 paintings on the life of Marie de’ Medici (1573-1642; now in the Louvre, Paris). After the death of Archduke Albert, the Infanta Isabella, who continued to rule the Southern Netherlands, sent him on diplomatic missions, beginning in 1622. His visits to Madrid, London, Paris and the Northern Netherlands led to contacts and important commissions for paintings, such as that given by King Charles I (1600-1649) to decorate the ceilings of London’s Banqueting House. Rubens’s skills as a diplomat may have been instrumental in negotiating a peace treaty between Spain and England in 1629. His last diplomatic mission was in 1633. His first wife having died in 1626, Rubens married the sixteen-year-old Hélène Fourmnent (1614-1673) in 1630 when he was 53. He purchased a castle outside Antwerp in 1635, where he spent summers. That same year he designed decorations for the entire city of Antwerp to welcome the Triumphal Entry of the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand (1609-1641). Rubens suffered devastating attacks of gout in 1640, his health worsened and he died on May 30, 1640. Purchasers at the sale of his collection included the kings of England and Spain and the Prince of Orange. (TNB 1/2013) Selected bibliography: Logan, Anne-Marie, with Michiel C. Plomp. Peter Paul Rubens: The Drawings. Exhibition catalog. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. Sutton, Peter C. The Age of Rubens. Exhibition catalog, with Marjorie E. Wiesman, et al. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent: Ludion, 1993.