Peter Paul Rubens is undoubtedly the most distinguished Flemish painter of the Baroque Era. He created both historical and mythological scenes. His artwork was marked by a dramatic and bold use of movement and color, as well as an enhanced sensuality for the time. Not only was Rubens a prolific Baroque master, but he was also a humanistic scholar and diplomat with a classical education.
He achieved outstanding accomplishments throughout his life. During the height of his career, he was knighted twice, in Spain by King Philip IV and England by King Charles I, while also having several distinguished royal clients. Ruben's production mainly involved mythological or allegorical themes, with a strong influence of the Counter-Reformation.
A highly prolific and versatile painter, Rubens produced a great variety of artworks. However, he became especially known for his religious and mythological representations. The artist's depictions of the curvaceous female body, such as in his masterpiece The Three Graces, became very characteristic, rendering the coinage of the term "Rubenesque".
The Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens - most commonly known as simply Rubens - was born in the Holy Roman Empire in June 1577, in the city of Siegen. His parents, Jan Rubens, a magistrate, and Maria Pypelincks, a writer, named the artist as an homage to the Saints Peter and Paul.
During this period, the Duke of Alba stated a new rule that led to the persecution of the Protestant faith. As a Calvinist, Rubens' father fled to Cologne from Antwerp before his birth in 1568, along with his family because of the commotion. Jan was eventually involved in a love affair with William I of Orange's wife, Anna of Saxony, which led to his arrest before Ruben's birth.
In 1587, at only ten years of age, while living in Cologne, Rubens lost his father. Two years later, he joined his mother and returned to Antwerp. It was then that the young man was brought up Catholic - a factor that would profoundly influence his life's work. Ruben's artwork was heavily based on religious influences, as the artist began with a Catholic upbringing but ultimately became one of the leading artists involved in the Counter-Reformation.
Rubens began to study art with Tobias Verhaecht at only fourteen years old, with a Renaissance and humanist education. He also studied classical literature and Latin. Later on, the young painter passed on the other influential teachers like Otto van Veen and Adam van Noort. Like many artists aspiring for greatness, Rubens copied artworks from others to study their techniques, like Marcantonio Raimondi and Hans Holbein, working with different mediums, like woodcut prints.
Religious subjects were prominent in most of Rubens' art, and he eventually became a leader in defending the Catholic Counter-Reformation, a movement in which the Catholic church began against the Protestant Reformation, intending to preserve their material wealth, power, and influence.
In 1598, after completing his studies, Rubens entered the Guild of St. Luke, named after the patron saint of artists, Evangelist Luke. This city guild was designated for European artists, mostly located in the low countries, and Rubens was able to enter as an independent master. Two years later, the artist traveled to Venice, where he had access to paintings of great masters like Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese.
He finally settled in Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga's court in Mantua, who supported him financially to travel to Florence and Rome during the next year, where he was able to study the work of great masters. Rubens was deeply inspired by artists of the High Renaissance like Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo, as well as the Baroque master, Caravaggio. During his stay in Rome, the painter concluded his first altarpiece painting, entitled St. Helena with the True Cross at the Santa Croce Church.
The Baroque painter didn't only work with art, but diplomacy as well. In 1603, he took the first of many trips to Spain for his diplomatic endeavors. After returning to Italy a year later, he would remain in the country for four years, mostly painting commissioned portraits. Rubens was deeply influenced by his surroundings, as he insisted on writing most of his correspondence in Italian and signed as Pietro Paolo Rubens - an Italian version of his name.
He returned to Antwerp in 1608 to visit his ill mother. Sadly, she died before he was able to arrive, and although the artist wished to return to Italy, he never did. A year later, Rubens was named a court painter by Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain and Albert VII, Austria's Archduke.
During this time, he got married to Isabella Brandt, and they moved into a new home, which was also his studio. It was an environment filled with many students and assistants and is known today as the Rubenshuis Museum. Anthony van Dyck, although not evident whether he was a pupil or workshop assistant, became one of the most famous members of his workshop. Nevertheless, Rubens exerted a pivotal influence on young van Dyck's career, who by then was only nineteen and would also become a largely influential and respected artist of his time.
Rubens also hired artists to undertake specific elements of his paintings, such as landscapes, animals, and still-lifes. He contracted artists such as Paul de Vos and Frans Snyders, specialists in animal paintings, as well as the distinguished Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens. Jan Brueghel the Younger was Rubens' most frequent collaborator.
Rubens continued to produce monumental paintings with his team until the final years of his life. He received many awards and tributes during his lifetime for his excellence in fine art. The painter was named as a nobleman by Philip IV of Spain in 1624 and was awarded a Master of Arts degree in 1629 by the Cambridge Unversity, as well as being knighted in 1630 by Charles I of England.
By 1639, one year before his death, Rubens finished his The Three Graces. The artwork shows the Three Graces, or the Caritas, daughters of the Greek god Zeus. These female figures, recurring throughout art history, were also previously explored by the artist in his work since 1620. However, this piece is often considered Rubens' most accomplished rendering of the subject.
In this masterpiece, the artist shows his masterful representation of the human flesh, employing a tonal scheme comprising only three primary colors, creating a more lively flesh appearance. Although the model for the subjects was his wife, Rubens based the poses on classical Greek sculptures.
He would still receive commission requests from patrons around the world during the final phase of his career. During his later career, Rubens created several mythological artworks that can be considered hymns to the beauty of women.
These nude females subjects were often placed in idyllic landscapes. This production became so characteristic of Rubens' art that the term "Rubenesque" was coined to describe women with curvaceous attributes, a term still used to this day. Although Rubens continued to execute mythological themes during his final years, they became a means for the artist to explore human emotions.
In 1640, Rubens created his work Return from the Fields, one of his very last artworks. Here, the artist presents the viewer with a bucolic and comforting landscape depicting peasants returning from labor. A straight horizon line crosses the picture, giving the spectator a bird's eye view, while the diagonal and painterly brushstrokes provide dynamism to the composition.
According to scholars, the warm color palette, which gives the paintings its tranquil aspect, and composition is inspired by Pieter Brueghel's country landscapes, such as A Village Landscape with Farmers. However, Rubens' primary focus, rather than the peasant's activities themselves, was nature's grandeur. He also admired Titian's ability to create an intimate interrelation between the subjects and the world they were immersed in.
On May 30, 1640, Peter Paul Rubens died following heart failure due to a chronic case of gout.
Rubens consolidated his name as one of the most pivotal and influential artists of Western art history. He was able to create a fusion between the Flemish Realism and the Classicizing elements of the Italian Renaissance. The artist created powerful and energic compositions with an exuberant style, often regarded as the pinnacle of 17th-century Baroque art.
During his career, Rubens influenced and collaborated with several of his contemporaries. One of his most frequent painting partner was Jan Brueghel the Younger. However, his influence was also felt for centuries to come, such as in the works of the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
His style inspired the Italian painters Luca Giordano and Pietro da Cortona. In Spain, Rubens' artworks influenced his friend's Diego Velazquez, and in England, distinguished artists Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough also looked-up to Rubens.
"I'm just a simple man standing alone with my old brushes, asking God for inspiration."
"White is poison to a picture: use it only in highlights."
"My passion comes from the heavens, not from earthly musings."
- Peter Paul Rubens