born 1577 in Siegen/Germany, died 1640 in Antwerp/Belgium
Peter Paul Rubens, the grand master of Flemish Baroque painting, is one of the greatest artistic figures ever to have emerged from the western world. His work is so extensive that it can be compared to a pictorial encyclopaedia. It encompasses religious, historical, mythological and allegorical paintings as well as portraits and landscapes. Rubens’ work is full of passionate life and is marked by sensuousness and the spirit of classical humanism.
The artist’s impressive, visually powerful style unites Flemish realism with the artistic freedom of form and the classical themes of Italian Baroque painting. The painter thus brought about a lasting change which affected all northern European art of his time.
Rubens was already held in such high regard during his lifetime that he was entrusted with diplomatic missions at the highest level. He successfully negotiated the peace treaty between England and Spain in 1629/30 and was knighted three times – in London, Brussels and Madrid.
It is reported that he was an early riser, who got up at 3.30 in the morning, went to early mass and started his work at dawn. He hardly ever drank and was a passionate horseman. His letters reveal him to be sensitive, warm-hearted and exuberant.
He was born in 1577, the sixth child of an affluent, highly-regarded, academically-educated family. His father was an Antwerp lawyer, a reformist who had fled from Antwerp to Cologne in 1568. William of Orange had Rubens’ father imprisoned at Dillenburg fortress because of an alleged affair with his wife and then placed him under house arrest in Siegen. The family was not allowed to return to Cologne until 1578.
After his father’s death in 1587, Rubens’ mother moved back to Antwerp with her seven children. Rubens probably received his first artistic tuition from the landscape painter Tobias Verhaecht. Further instructors were Adam von Noort and Otto van Veen, whose influence can be perceived in Rubens’ early work. In 1598, Rubens was admitted at the age of 21 to the Guild of St. Luke as a master painter.
Rubens lived in Italy from 1600 to 1608, working in Venice, Florence and Mantua as a diplomat and court painter to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. The duke also sent him on political missions to Rome and to the Spanish royal court in Valladolid. In Rome, Rubens studied the monuments and the works of contemporary painters such as Zuccari, Cesari and Caravaggio. The stimulating ideas which he absorbed in Italy caused him to move beyond his early mannerist style.
In 1609, he was appointed court painter to Archduke Albert and he established his workshop in Antwerp. The garden in the Rubens house also dates from this period. So great was the demand for apprenticeship places in his workshop that he could hardly cope with the rush of applicants. In the same year, he married eighteen-year-old Isabella Brant, who bore him three children.
In 1620, he developed his style further. Restless agitation alternates with classical measuredness at the beginning of this period. The strong light-dark contrasts were gradually abandoned. He also started to use paler paints with clear luminosity in his pictures of the Italian period, which are otherwise marked by deep, dark shades with only occasional lightened tones. He mostly applied these paler paints to wood and to a chalk ground.
Following the death of his wife, who was probably a victim of the plague, he married his sixteen-year-old model, Helene Fourment, in 1630. She bore him five children. In 1635, he acquired Steen, a country castle near Antwerp, to which he retreated during the final years of his life. His grave is in St Jakob’s church in Antwerp.
Approximately 3,000 paintings were completed in Rubens’ workshop, of which he himself painted or reworked about 600. Important fellow painters and pupils such as A. van Dyck, J. Bruegel the Elder and F. Snyders emerged from the busy workshop.