Peter Paul Rubens is a famous Flemish painter, whose canvases are the true embodiment of sensual, vigorous spirit of baroque epoch. His legacy is the union of Bruegel’s realism and achievements of the Venetian school.
Rubens was born in 1577 in an old family of Antwerp citizens, His father Jan Rubens, a lawyer, who had been a city’s syndic during the reign of duke of Alba, for his favoring of Protestant Reformation were down for the proscription – an official list with the names of “enemies of the state”. So, the family was forced to escape.
He left for Koln, where had an affair with Anna of Saxony. Her husband, William the Silent, found it out and imprisoned Jan. Ruben’s mother, Maria Pypelincks, successfully begged for replacing detention with banishment. A city of Siegen was chosen as a place of the exile. Here Peter Paul was born and spent first years of his life. Only after the death of Jan Rubens in 1587, his family was allowed to came back to Antwerp.
Rubens received his education in the Jesuit college and after finishing it served as a page of the countess of Lalaing.
He started learning painting rather early. Since 14 years he learnt from such masters as Tobias Verhaecht, Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen, who were influenced by Italian Reniassance and managed to inculcate in Peter Paul a taste for antiquity. In 1598 he was accepted into the Antwerp’s guild of St. Luke (a guild of artists), and in 1600, traditionally for Flemish painters, left for Italy, where Rubens completed his education.
Rubens stated in Italy for eight years (1600 – 1608). Most of the time he served at the court of Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga in Mantua. On behalf of the latter he visited all most important artistic centers of the country – in Rome and Florence he acquainted with original Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture and works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Caravaggio; in Venice Rubens got inspired by Tintoretto and Correggio. In 1603 Duke sent him with a diplomatic mission to Spain.
Italian period for Rubens was time, dedicated not for searching his own manner, but for preparation. He closely studied and copied Renaissance masterpieces, though few independent works were also done. Among them – his first serous commission for the High Altar in the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (Genova).
In 1608 Rubens was in Rome, finishing his some new-ordered canvases, when he had the news his mother was seriously ill. He hastily departed from Rome, but his mother had died before he came back home. Despite his promise to return to the Duke of Mantua, Peter Paul staid in the Low Countries and was appointed a court painter of Albert VII, Archduke of Austria. He was, figuratively speaking, tied up to them with “golden chains” – the offered salary was big enough to open a spacious workshop with numerous apprentices and one of the best dwellings (palazzo-like) of Antwerpen. In 1609 he married Isabella Brant – a daughter of famous humanist and city secretary Jan Brant.
During next decade Rubens achieved such fame in Europe that it was only Titian among the artists of proceeding epoch, who could compete with it. Public was striken with his religious scenes of the most dramatic biblical episodes (like “Last Judgment” and “Cruxifiction”) and strenuous, energetic and lush coloring of slightly erotic scenes from antique mythology (like “The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus” or “The Battle of the Amazons”).
Rubens didn’t tear relations with powerful Jesuit order. In 1610s, he took part in designing the church of St. Carlo Borromeo in Antwerp. Ruben’s most talented student Anthonys van Dyck helped him in preparation of sketches of its plafond. The high point of Peter Paul’s cooperation with church were grandiose altarpieces “Raising of the Cross” “Descent from the Cross” in the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp.
An impressing number or pieces, signed by Rubens (there’re over 2000 known) witness a huge role of his numerous apprentices, among whom there were such future virtuosos like Jacob Jordaens and Frans Snyders. In 1620s the production of his studios flooded not only the Low Countries but the whole Europe. Specialists suppose that master created primary draft of composition for the large-scale canvases and painted elements that required particular elaboration. Usually he offered his clients a grisaille sketch of a future work and left it for rendering to his assistants after the approval.
Apart from already mentioned van Dyck, Jordaens and Snyders, Artus Quellinus, Theodoor van Thulden, Cornelis de Vos, Simon de Vos and others.
In 1621 Flemish regent infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain made Rubens her councilor in the question of armistice with the republic of Netherlands. Peter Paul was truly valuable for Habsburg’s diplomacy, as, a crafty negotiator, he was well educated, knew six languages and corresponded with many crowned persons in Europe (they called him “the King of artists and the Artist of King”).
In 1622 Rubens was invited by Queen Dowager Maria Medici to Paris. She was familiar by hearsay of his talent and wanted the painter to depict scenes from her life for two long corridors in newly build Luxemburg palace. He worked over this order for two years in Antwerp and finally presented them in 1625. The Queen decided to commission him another analogic series, dedicated to her husband Henry IV, but it remained unrealized.
In 1628, Ling Philipp IV invited Rubens to Madrid, where he had a chance to make some replicas from the works of Titian, who had an immense influence on his artistic style. A year later, he participated in peace negotiations with Carl I in London. During his stay in Britain, he painted the ceiling of the banquet hall in Whitehall palace, designed by Inigo Jones. For these murals, dedicated to life of the monarch’s father Jacob I, the King dubbed Rubens a knight and Cambridge university awarded him with a degree of the Honored Doctor.
In 1626 Ruben’s first wife, Isabella, died, and he married again on Helena Fourment, who was depicted on almost painting of her husband since that time. More than twenty portraits of this woman are now kept in museum collections all over the world. She was the artist’s inspiration, so last 10 years of his life were as productive as the earliest ones.
In 1630s master completed the altar of the Ildefonso Brotherhood for the church of St. Jacob de Coudenberg in Brussels and series of cartons for tapestry desingns about life of Apelles (9 scenes), “The History of Constantine” (12 scenes) and “Triumph of the Church” (9 scenes). Rubens also participated in preparing street decorations for the ceremonial welcome of a new ruler of the Low Countries – infant cardinal Ferdinand in 1635.
Despite his tireless creative activity, Peter Paul found time for many other things: he was in correspond with general Ambrogio Spinola, famous intellectuals like Johannes Caspar Gevartius, Pierre Dupuy, dimplmat sir Dudley-Carlton. He collected carved stones and made illustrations for the work of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc about cameos. Rubens was also present during first experiments with microscope.
He died at the peak of his artistic fame in Antwerpen in 1640.
Rubens is one of the greatest representatives not only of Flemish, but European painting of the 17th cent. in general. His oeuvre is a unique combination of genial originality and elaborated heritage of proceeding epochs.
Learning from the first-range Italian artists of Renaissance epoch, he absorbed and mastered all their attainments: from Titian and Veronese he took vim and splendor coloring, turning canvases into true symphony of tints; from Michelangelo – intensity of movements and dynamism that added dramatism to the compositions; from Leonardo and Rafael – exquisiteness and lucidity of drawing; from Correggio – plasticity of forms and art of chiaroscuro. Whatever the subject was, Rubens always paid a lot of attention to studying of nature.
This tendency, together with interest to life, was the painter’s key to success: from immature copying and imitating masterpieces, he quickly shifted to self-sufficient creativity. Following concepts of classical art Peter Paul closely observed surrounding world as a permanent source of inspiration, yet idealized it, trying to outline the aspects of beauty and poetry in his works. That led to subjectivity and vitality of his characters. The joyful images were the quintessence of buoyance Flemish culture. And powerful personality of Rubens totally conformed with it.
A viewer of the artist’s pieces is always captivated with richness, diversity and authenticity of his rendering. He was, in a certain sense, a realist, who got rid of all incidental details and reproduced nature in its most typical and inspiring aspects.
Almost all of his works were replicated in engravings, sometimes repeatedly and under his control. Among the printmakers, who copied his works were Cornelius Galle, Willem van Swanenburg, Southman, Paulus Pontius and others.
To understand the importance and the impact of Rubens’ legacy not only for Flemish school (in fact, he predetermined all its future development) but for future generations of the artists, it’s enough to quote a sentence from Delacroix’s letter to Manet: “We were to examine Rubens, be inspired by Rubens, copy Rubens; Rubens reigned supreme”.