By Paul Dunwell, writing for EasyFrame
© Copyright EasyFrame 2021
Sir Peter Paul Rubens, who rose to such prominence in his day that both Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain knighted him although he was effectively German by birth, operated from what is modern-day Belgium.
Yet Antwerp, his home, was then part of the Netherlands during what was a golden age for the low countries (i.e. what are now the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg). This is because the region’s art, science and naval power - which had a knock-on effect on trade - was fairly dominant in Europe. In such a climate the region was well-fitted to patronising the likes of Rubens. Simply put, it was awash with money and could afford him. But half the courts in Europe, recognising his skills, found they could afford him too. Moreover he was recognised by academia as well as royalty. Cambridge University, for example, gave him a masters degree.
Rubens was the leading exponent of what is known as the ‘Flemish Baroque’ movement, a painter and illustrator, writer, art and book collector, and diplomat who was exceptionally well-educated, well-travelled and cultured. As an aristocrat he enjoyed a long and privileged life (living to be 63 when for such people 64 was the life-expectancy) and thus left a huge legacy of work which appears to include over 1,400 pieces although, as a court artist, he employed others and subcontracted work so the provenance of some pieces – and parts of others – has been fudged.
He was a Catholic working in an era known as the Counter-Reformation, so there was a bit of a swing back towards the Catholic church after the Reformation (which Martin Luther had started, along with the concept of Protestantism, in 1517). But the Counter-Reformation (1545-1571) overlapped the Reformation (1517-1685), starting later and finishing earlier. That was just as well because the resurgence of Catholicism included some pretty awful treatment of Protestants and cruelty including the Spanish Inquisition which executed thousands for heresy. But none of this implies that Rubens, who was a gentle humanist and whose parents were Protestants (Calvinists actually) and who’d fled Catholic excesses though they brought him up as a Catholic for his own safety, would have condoned such excesses.
What singles him out as an artist is his ability to accurately and/or imaginatively depict colour, light and movement, even sensuality, much of it in traditional Christian, historic, allegorical and mythological works, in portraits and in landscapes on canvas, wood and slate. Notably he is famous for his well-rounded females (quite possibly painted for the titillation of a largely-male audience) and thus the term ‘Rubenesque’ has passed into the language, though his males were relatively lean and muscular.
Rubens was probably born in Siegen, modern-day Germany, where Anna of Saxony - the wife of William of Orange (aka William the Silent and William the Taciturn) - had her court and where Rubens’s father Jan Rubens was legal advisor.
Unfortunately Rubens senior, who was apparently a Calvanist preacher, had an affair with Anna of Saxony and she bore his child Christine in 1571. That was a dangerous thing to do. William of Orange discovered the adultery and its embarrassing consequences. Jan Rubens was imprisoned for the next two years, until 1573. But after that, until 1578, the family – Jan Rubens together with his partner Maria Pijpelinckx and their four children – were held in Cologne under house arrest until about a year after their fifth child, Peter Paul, was born. They only escaped this house arrest because mum Maria graciously bailed her adulterous husband out, somehow raising 8,000 thalers to do so from her own savings and a loan. Thereafter she took pains to hide the disgrace her husband had brought upon the family.
Actually Jan and Maria had temporarily fled to Siegen from Antwerp because as Calvinists they were in danger. Happily they were allowed to return to Antwerp as a family soon after Peter Paul’s birth but sadly Jan died when his son was 10.
One assumes that Maria was not left without resources because, by the time Peter Paul Rubens was 13 and having had a good schooling, he was working as a page for a countess. But the next year saw him training as an artist until he was 21 with the landscapist Tobias Verhaeght. Yet it wasn’t all landscapes because much of his training involved copying the work of Raphael and Hans Holbein the Younger. Moreover Rubens seems to have also been taught by Otto Van Veen (a painter and draughtsman) as well as Adam Van Noort (painter, draughtsman and designer for engravings).
A couple of years later, in 1600, he was off to Venice, then Florence and then Rome to soak up the work of masters including Titian, Tintoretto, Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio. Early on he was able to hatch a deal with the Duke of Gonzaga in Lombardy in NW Italy to copy existing works by great masters, to paint afresh including an altarpiece, and to buy up art. So this period in Italy, until 1608, saw the start of him becoming something of an emissary.
It is not known whether Rubens was aware that the duke had something of a murderous reputation. In a fit of jealousy in 1582 he’d killed a brilliant Scottish polymath called James Crichton. Assumedly Rubens had the sense to avoid looking too brilliant himself!
During this Italian sojourn Rubens broke off and went to Spain in 1603 for a year as a diplomat, working for the duke and going to see Philip III with presents (the duke probably was on a charm offensive with the king as he was with the church). Yet for Rubens this was another chance to see great art, study how it had been executed, and paint for new clients.
By the time he returned to Antwerp in 1609 he was writing and illustrating books too. He’d returned there hoping to see his mum before she died though he’d been too late. But once home he was hired by the Archduke of Austria and his Spanish wife who ruled the Netherlands. Such was his reputation that they let him work in Antwerp instead of Brussels and allowed him work for other clients too.
This was a period of personal consolidation. He married Isabella Brant, built a couple of exceptional homes, a library and gallery, and a studio where he trained great young artists including Anthony Van Dyck who was destined to become a court painter in England and be knighted. He also developed great friendships with fellow artists including Jan Breughel the Elder (who painted plants) and Franz Snyder (who specialised in animals).
During this period he continued to generate the art for which he was already famous. But importantly he saw the potential of using new technologies (notably the printing presses that had allowed the Protestant movement to kick off) to exploit his fame. He hatched deals with engravers and printers to reproduce his work under an early form of copyright protection.
From 1621 to 1630 Rubens went to work for the deeply-dysfunctional Marie de’ Medici, who was by that time the queen mother and working with similarly-dysfunctional Cardinal Richelieu, in France. His work to celebrate her life with Henry IV (whom she may have had assassinated the day she was crowned queen) was never finished because int was interrupted when her similarly-dysfunctional son Louis XIII threw her out in 1630. Interestingly when she died 12 years later it was in the house in Cologne where Rubens had grown up.
During these years Rubens was used by the royal courts of Europe a little like a messenger pigeon. There were various initiatives to avert wars - mostly between Protestant and Catholic countries as you’d expect - and he thus found himself traveling to meet the likes of Philip IV of Spain and Charles I of England. He also met and befriended Velázquez.
Sadly in 1626 his first wife, Isabella Brant, who had given him three children, died of the plague back in Antwerp. In fact he’d gone back to Antwerp in 1625, and moved the family to Brussels to avoid the plague. But when the danger seemed to have blown over they returned. Unfortunately it was premature. She died. He was devastated.
In 1630 he was, at 53, to marry 16-year-old Hélène Fourment who was to give him another four sons and seven daughters. Both women were from well-to-do families, and actually Hélène Fourment was Isabella Brant’s niece, though he could have married into nobility if not royalty.
By 1630, with a young wife and 14 children who were probably starting to provide grandchildren, he seems to have decided to opt out of shuttle-diplomacy so he could focus exclusively on his art back in Antwerp. Some commentaries suggest he saw the diplomacy as thankless but he was a businessman and must have realised it opened doors. Having said that, to the end – which came rather suddenly when he had a heart attack brought on by chronic gout – he may have been largely in Antwerp but was still working on ambitious projects for clients abroad.
In summary Peter Paul Rubens was almost an anachronism, in the days when the only way to get around was by horse and coach he travelled far more widely than most of us do in the 21st century. And this was a man whose reputation preceded him, who was trusted and welcome in every court in Europe. Indeed, although his art was very significant we will never know whether his shuttle-diplomacy staved off wars and saved countless lives and misery. Moreover in a further attempt to alleviate misery he painted a lot of well-rounded ladies, doubtless doing so in the best possible taste.
You can easily and affordably buy unframed prints of his work. The National Gallery site at www.nationalgallery.co.uk/products/rubens is one place to obtain these. Another is www.ukposters.co.uk/peter-paul-rubens/. Originals are pricey. ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ (a painting that depicts the children King Herod had killed in an attempt to murder Jesus Christ) fetched £49.5m in 2002. Whilst even a picture of an unidentified person, painted in an unidentified year, ‘Portrait of a Commander’, fetched £9m when it was last sold.
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Article Posted: 08/03/2021 10:14:29