The Art of Peter Paul Rubens


Peter Paul Rubens, self-portrait (1620).

1.  Introduction

Peter Pal Rubens (1577-1640) was the greatest master of the Flemish School whose work transcended national and regional characteristics. In his art he came near to achieving the perfect blend of naturalism and classicism. He took from Italy all that was necessary for the full development of his own robust Flemish art.

A brilliant colourist, he possessed a quick and fertile imagination. He liked huge canvases and the grand manner which sometimes could become almost swaggering. The superabundant vigour and vitality of his style was occasionally expressed in the opulence of his nude figures and in an excess of movement. A style that took the eye of the spectator out of the picture.

However, Rubens does not equal the gracefulness and dignity of his pupil  Anthony van Dyck in his aristocratic portraiture but his range was considerably wider. Very prolific, Rubens is credited with over 1250 works of which more than 30 are in the National Gallery. Not primarily a religious painter – he painted any subject that came his way – his landscapes have equal verve. Rubens did rise to magnificence in some of his religious compositions such as the Descent from the Cross (1612-1614), the central panel of a triptych in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, see Figure 1.


Figure 1.  Descent from the Cross (1612-1614).

2.  Life and Work. 

Born in Siegen in Westphalia in 1577, he died in Antwerp in 1640. His father was Jan Rubens, a Calvinist advisor to William the Silent and exiled from Antwerp, so Rubens grew up in Cologne. On the death of his father in 1587 his mother returned to Antwerp whereupon he was brought up a catholic. He had a classical education in a Latin school from age eleven. Aged 14 he entered the household of a Flemish princess as a page where he drew tombs. Later he studies under the landscape painter Tobias Verhaecht, then under Adam van Noort, the last four years with the Dutch Mannerist history painter Otho Venius (Otto van Veen) until 1600. Whilst with Otho Venius he was accepted as a master in the Lukas Guild in 1598. It was between 1598 and 1600 that he painted Leda and the Swan, see Figure 2.


Figure 2Leda and the Swan (1598-1600).

In 1600 Rubens visited Italy and whilst in Venice attracted the attention of Duke Vicenzo Gonzaga who became his patron. Rubens finally became a resident of the Duke’s court at Mantua (where he felt the influence of Guilio Romano and Mantegna) and accompanied Gonzaga on his travels to Florence and Rome. Rubens was sent by Gonzaga on diplomatic missions, bearing gifts and paintings, to Spain in 1603. He returned to Roma in 1605 and studied Graeco-Roman antiquity. In Venice, Genoa, and Rome, he copied Titian, Raphael, Tintoretto, as well as the works of contemporaries that included Caravaggio, the Carracci, and Elsheimer, whom he met and was taught the art of etching. After executing several large commissions in Italy he returned to Antwerp as a successful painter, after the death of his mother, in 1608. The journey to Italy greatly influenced his future development.

In 1609, in Antwerp, he was appointed court painter to the Regent Albert (Albrecht) and Isabella who ruled the Netherlands for Philip the III of Spain. For this he received an annual salary of 500 guilders and was exempted from the Guild’s restrictions and taxation. Rubens also received permission to establish himself outside the Regent’s residence in Brussels. In 1609 he married Isabella Brant, daughter of the town clerk. Married and settled in Antwerp he won increasing admiration from his patrons and fellow artists. In 1609 he painted his famous double portrait, the Rubens and his First Wife Isabella Brant in the Honeysuckle Bower, see Figure 3, a masterpiece of Flemish precision. This painting of


Figure 3 Rubens and Isabella in the Honeysuckle Bower (1609).

circa 1609-1610 is an oil on canvas covered panel now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. It was probably executed to celebrate his marriage to the daughter of an Antwerp patrician. A marriage in keeping with his social standing on his return from Italy and reflected in the painting. Heightened by symbolic and emblematic references the couple are seated in a bower of honeysuckle. The plant associated with marital love and emotional constancy. A portrait remarkable for its painstaking detal and accuracy. Everthing is worked like a piece of jewellery.

In 1610 Rubens built himself a large house and studio. Established in this sumptuous palace, where his paintings were displayed, he sold to the nobility and crowned heads of Europe. During his Antwerp period until 1622 he received a blood of commissions from church, state, and nobility. The most important paintings of this period are religious and mythological compositions and hunting scenes, such as The Last Judgement, the Lion Hunt (1616-1617), and the Battle of the Amazons,  see Figure 4. The Battle of the Amazons, circa 1618, now in Munich, was painted when Rubens was still young. It shows to the full the impetuosity of his talent and is Homeric in epic form. A whirlwind composition it is


Figure 4The Battle of the Amazons (1600).

typically Baroque with its composition-in-movement, the horse charging headlong into a fight. The image was perfectly suited to his passionate temperament. He employed many pupils in his workshop who later became famous. These include Van Dyck (employed as his chief assistant), Jordaens, Snyders, and Cornelis de Vos. The Gobelin factory produced tapestries from his sketches and engravers used his paintings. Thus they disseminated the ‘Rubens style’ all over Europe. His largest commission of the period was for 21 paintings of the life of the Queen Dowager Marie de’Medici for the Palais Luxembourg in Paris whilst working for Charles I, a knighthood for decorations in the Whitehall Palace in London, and Philip IV. In 1625 he was in Spain where he met Velasquez. Thus the most important painter of the |International Baroque became the first artistic aristocrat. His fame and wealth thus constantly increased. Isabella Brant died in 1626 and in 1627 he sold his great art collection which included works by Titian, Raphael, and Tintoretto, for 100,000 guilders to the Duke of Buckingham.

In 1630 he married 16 year old Helene Fourment, the subject of many of his later works, whom he immortalised in many portraits – for example the Le Chapeau de Paille – once thought to be Helene but now believed to be her sister Susanna. After Isabella’s death he gradually withdrew from bought and bought Steen Castle  (the Chateau de Steen) near Mecheln. Beset by illness he now painted splendid landscapes and rustic compositions. In a rustic vein, in 1635, he produced voluptuous female nude painting of the Three Graces, see Figure 5. Ruben’s last big commission was to decorate the Spanish king’s hunting lodge of Torre de la Parada near Madrid. He designed it but was no longer able to carry out the work himself.


Figure 5.  The Three Graces (1835). 

The Three Graces (of 1639) was one of his final works and is now in The Prado in Madrid. Rubens portrayed the scene several times since from about 1620. Later he accepted the circular composition of classical antiquity where on of the figures has he back to the spectator. The painting of three nude amply proportioned women illustrates his extraordinary handling of incarnate or human flesh. They are built up out of three primary colours of red yellow, and blue. Blue is evident in high proportion. The figures thus reflect the three primary colours of the world, the cosmos, and all is gathered here in the landscape, sky, trees and flowers.

3.  The Art and Style of Rubens

Rubens, the great Baroque master, successfully brought together in his style and northern and Flemish elements of his period and in Italy. The first Fleming to receive a commission in Rome he painted an altarpiece for the Oratorians that was Flemish in realism and Italian in design. He produced a very rhetorical style of painting with great movement and rich colouring. His sometimes gigantic pictorial inventions, which do no always appeal to modern taste, were pioneering in composition, design and colour, an example is seen in Figure 6, the Night Scene of 1617. As a Counter-Reformation propagandist he reflected the doctrines of the Council of Trent. His influence on the painters


Figure 6.  Night Scene (1617).

his century was enormous as it was also on sculpture and architecture. Taking as subject matter all the major themes of painting his works included the biblical, see Figure 7,  mythological, see Figure 8, the lives of the saints, subjects from antiquity, see Figure 9, landscapes, peasant scenes, and portraits.


Figure 7Samson and Delilah (1609-1610).


Figure 8The Head of Medusa (1617).


Figure 9The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1616-1618).

Indeed, Rubens himself wrote that “My talent is such that no undertaking, however large and varied in theme, has ever gone beyond by self-confidence.”

The work of Rubens shows continuous development but can be roughly divided into three periods. The first period are his formative years, including his stay in Italy, and his early eclectic work in Antwerp. His colours were laid on broadly, the paintings strong in contrast, figures show harsh modelling and drawing was academic. The influence of Tintoretto, Veronese and Titian are much in evidence. During his second period a gradual change takes place. Paint becomes more luminous though still opaque but his chiaroscuro is less violent. His fluency and facility are combined into an exuberant style suitable for workshop practice and the mass production of paintings. This was the start of the Antwerp School. From 1625, the third and last phase, he has achieved complete mastery with his  vital, free, expressive brushwork, see Figure 10, and his painting of Cimon and Pero (1630). His


Figure 10Cimon and Pero (1630).

colours are brilliant and luminous expressing an exuberantly sensual feeling for the tactile, for human flesh and materials. A style not paralleled since. Contemporary taste and criticism fin this aspect of his work the least acceptable.

4.  Some masterpieces of Rubens.

The Portrait of Susanne Fourment or La Chapeau de Paille – The Straw hat of 1625 is an oil on panel measuring 79 x 54.5 cm in the National Gallery, London, see Figure 11.


Figure 11Portrait of Susanne Fourment (1625).

After 1635 there is painted The Little fur (Helene Fourment), an oil on wood measuring 176 x 83 cm now in the Kunstistorische Museum, Vienna, see Figure 12. However, an earlier work is his Venus at a Mirror of circa 1515 and is an oil on panel measuring 124 x 98 cm, and is in the Vaduz, Sammlung Furst von Lichtenstein, see Figure 13. As has been


Figure 12. The Little Fur (1635).


Figure 13.  Venus Before a Mirror (1615).

seen with his Samson and Delilah, which was painted for a humanist friend and reflects the approach of the artist Elsheimer, it is sumptuous, sensual and tender, showing how Rubens absorbed and transformed the work of the masters.

The painting The Four Philosophers (a Self-portrait with the Artist’s Brother Philip, Justus Lipsius und Johannes Wouverius) was painted around 1611. Oil on panel it measures 164 x 139 cm, see Figure 14. It is in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. In 1611 Rubens’s brother Philip died suddenly. This group portrait, which serves as an intellectual manifesto, was


Figure 14. The Four Philosophers (1611).

intended to evoke the atmosphere of humanistic thinking in which the brothers grew up. Watching over the group is the bust of Seneca set in a niche with a floral tribute of tulips. The background landscape view is that of the Roman Palatine. The work reflects a 17th century humanism derived from other sources that Italian Renaissance humanism A humanism derived from the stoics Diogenes and Epictetus that is also seen in the works of Salvator Rosa, Poussin, and Van Dyck. Rubens was a devotee of stoicism and Seneca.

The Stormy Landscape with Philamon and Baucis of around 1620, see Figure 15, is an oil on canvas measuring 147 x 209 cm, now in Vienna. A stream has wreaked havoc after a storm, flooding fields and meadows. The sky has begun to clear and a rainbow has formed beside a waterfall. A peaceful landscape destroyed. The figures to the right indicate an


Figure 15. Stormy Landscape (1620).

allegorical theme. When Jupiter and Mercury descended in human form only Philamon and Baucis gave them hospitality with the result the gods floded the entire land in response. Only Philamon and Baucis and their humble dwelling were spared the wrath of the flood. Everything in the painting is thus subject to divine powers and the metamorphosis with nothing that cannot be changed into human or vice versa. In contrast to this mythological work can be contrasted a more down to earth painting called the Studies of the Head of a Negro from the first half of the 17th century, see Figure 16, and which illustrates the workmanlike preparatory studies made by Rubens, as well as the head study of two supposed satyrs, see Figure 17.


Figure 17Studies of the Head of a Negro (early to mid-17th century).


Figure 18Two Satyrs (1618-1619).

The Landing of Marie de’ Medici at Marseille, circa 1622-25, see Figure 19, is oil on canvas measuring 394 x 295 cm, and now in The Louvre, Paris. Part of his most important commission of 1621 – a cycle of paintings for Marie de’Medici, the widowed consort of Henry IV of France – decorating galleries in the newly built Palais de Luxembourg. The cycle, worked out by Marie, Rubens, and Richelieu, glorifies the life of Henry IV. The work shows Marie’s arrival in Marseille on 3.11.1600 and greeted by allegories of France and


Figure 19The Landing of Marie de’Medici at Marseille (1622-25).

Marseille. Above her floats Fama, Neptune and the Nereids have accompanied the ship to ensure safe passage. The cycle was painted to legitimise Marie’s rule after the assassination of Henry IV (the day after his coronation) in view of Marie’s conflict with her son – the future Louis XIII. Rubens transposes historical facts into images of timeless significance, blurring boundaries between history, mortality and the realms of eternal powers.

His The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, an oil on canvas, painted circa 1618 and measuring 224 x 210.5 cm, see Figure 9, is now in Munich. The subject matter was not recognised until 1777 when a scene was pinpointed in the idylls of Theocritus. Thus Leda’s sons Castor and Pollux, carry off the two majestic daughters of Leucippus of Argos during a wedding ceremony. Even though the Leucippides were already betrothed to the twins Lnceus and Idas. Not a simple mythological illustration. Both maidens, contrary to resisting, appear to lift up their eyes in rapture. A typical Rubens device and thus portraying an apotheoisis (a deification, a transformation of an ideal). The Leucippides are lifted from earthly realms into the heavenly Olympic delights of celestial Zeus. The movement is therefore actually graceful and calm in keeping with the theme. At a much later date Rubens again paints the mythological scene of Andromeda Chained to the Rocks (1638-39), see Figure 20.


Figure 20Andromeda Chained to the Rocks (1638-1639).

Rubens often painted multiple versions of his themes. He often used his sizable workshop to help execute his large paintings which explains the seven productions of Andromeda over the years. In this version she is shown chained to a rock near Joppa while she is waiting to be rescued by Perseus. Another is his other version of Cimon and Pero (1630) using the theme of Roman Charity, see Figure 21. Roman charity is known as Caritas romana in Latin and Carita Romana in Italian. The 1612 version is an oil on canvas and tells the


Figure 21.  Roman Charity (1612).

story of  Pero who breast fed her father Cimon in secret after his imprisonment and death sentence. Found out for this, her charity eventually won his eventual release. See also the version of 1630 in Figure 10.

5.  Summary

The influence of Rubens on Flemish, French and English painting was enormous. His successors in France were Antoine Watteau, Francois Boucher, Eugene Delacroix and Pierre Renoir. Watteau and Delacroix learnt a great deal from the subtle colour relationships of his paintings. The portrait painters of the English School – Reynolds, Gainsborough, then Ward and Constable – owed their freedom in the handling of paint to him. Through his pupil Anthony van Dyck he exerted influence on English painting for several centuries.

Rubens and his workshop produced exuberant religious paintings, classical fables and allegories. These large scale paintings are noted for their vitality, masterly execution, richness of colour and vigorous, often rhythmic movement of their composition. Not all canvases attributed are by him, especially as he established a huge workshop which may have employed some 200 apprentices and assistants. The original inventive designs underlying his paintings are generally his own and his laborious life was well ordered.

Rubens, the prolific genius of the Flemish Baroque was a great humanist scholar and important diplomat. His letters show him an authority on archaeology, philosophy and politics. He was perhaps the most learned artist who ever lived with a scholarly knowledge of the antique and whose brother was librarian to Cardinal Colonna. Embroiled in religious and political struggles of his time, he constantly worked for the restoration of peace in Europe. Even though he lived the life of an aristocrat his art shows strong roots in the robust life of the Flemish people. Able to absorb the lessons of the Italian Renaissance he studied Michelangelo and Raphael, the Venetians and Correggio, as well as his contemporaries Caravaggio and the Carracci. All this he fused into his own personal and dramatic style. Rubens diffused his knowledge through his paintings where he achieved a remarkable synthesis of antique sculpture in his works.

The Baroque is thought of as a powerful, exuberant, sensuous, even explosive style. Rubens is its perfect example. Able to infuse his own outstanding vitality into his religious and mythological paintings, portraits, and landscapes, he was a painter of never ending powers of invention. He organised complex compositions in wildly moving and dynamic designs. The limitations of form and outlines of shape were disregarded in favour of a constant flow of movement. Full blooded, voluptuous women may not be the taste of a less vigorous age, but are related to the opulent forms of Rubens ideal of womanhood. His art combined passion with science and ardour with reflection. The early paintings of Rubens were more motional whereas the later were more classical and calmer. His Antwerp Cathedral triptych shows Baroque figures dominating space in a metaphorical light with a unifying wholeness – Baroque art for churches was on the large scale and demanded both clarity and doctrinal correctness. Rubens drew his organisation and narrative control from Tintoretto, a precursor of the Baroque, to achieve a dramatic narrative style. Rubens was one of the most versatile and influential artists of northern Europe in the 17th century. He had a remarkable ability to bring his paintings intensely and joyously alive.


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