Peter Paul Rubens
Biography/Paintings Of Flemish Baroque Painter.

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Descent from the Cross (Rubens) (1614)
Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp.

Exemplifies Flemish Baroque art.

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Rubens (1577-1640)


The Life and Art of Peter Paul Rubens


The most important painter of his day in Northern Europe - and one of the greatest Old Masters of the Baroque style of Flemish painting which emphasized movement, colour, and sensuality - Peter Paul Rubens later became an icon of the 'Romantic' faction inside the French Academy, as opposed to the 'Classical' faction represented by Nicolas Poussin. Noted above all for his Christian art, he was the illustrator of the Catholic faith and divine right of kings. He was also a classical scholar, art-collector and diplomat. As one of the leading exponents of Baroque painting, Rubens is famous for his Catholic Counter-Reformation art - notably his altarpieces - as well as ceiling-paintings, portraits, landscapes, and especially history painting with its mythological and allegorical messages. Ranks alongside Jan van Eyck as one of the top Flemish painters of all time. His greatest Baroque paintings include: Samson and Delilah (1610, National Gallery, London); Descent from the Cross (1612-14, Antwerp Cathedral); Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618, Alte Pinakothek, Munich); and Judgement of Paris (1632-6, National Gallery, London).

The Judgement of Paris (1597-1600)
(detail). By Rubens.
National Gallery, London.
Wonderful mythological painting
from the master of the Baroque.

Venus Before The Mirror (c. 1615)
Liechtenstein Museum, Vaduz.
Paintings of Venus admiring herself
were not uncommon during the
Renaissance and Baroque eras.
Rubens' Venus before the Mirror -
an improvement on Titian's painting
Venus with a Mirror - reinterprets the
theme according to the spirit of the
Flemish Baroque. Rubens' Venus is
more human than Titian's. Her figure
is fuller, more curvaceous. Her hair
cascades down her back, and instead
of gazing at her own beauty she
catches the eye of the viewer.


Rubens often used pupils and assistants (eg. van Dyck, Jordaens, Snyders) to complete a painting. An erudite and cosmopolitan artist, Rubens was born in Germany, settled in Antwerp (now Belgium), had a Spanish wife and became Court Painter to the Spanish Govenors of the Netherlands. He was knighted by both Philip IV, king of Spain, and Charles I, king of England.

Rubens' artworks may be divided into three groups: those painted by Rubens himself, those which he helped to paint (typically painting hands and faces), and those he merely supervised. He was assisted by a number of students and apprentices, while he often assigned certain elements of his larger paintings (eg. animals or still-life groupings) to specialists such as Snyders or Jordaens.

Drawing studies were important to Rubens, especially when delegating the execution of a painting to others. First he would make a quick sketch, usually drawn and washed in brown ink, or occasionally painted in grisaille on a panel. Next he would produce a detailed oil sketch, which was then submitted to the client for approval or comment. Thereafter, other anatomical detail was produced in separate figure drawings. Sometimes Rubens would produce a finished painting containing elements he intended to reuse in his larger compositions: (Four Studies of the Head of a Negro, in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, is one such figure painting. The study depicts four portraits of one and the same African man. Rubens painted him from different angles and with different expressions in preparation for one of his intended subjects to be included in his large altarpiece, The Adoration of the Magi.

Samson and Delilah (1609-1610) (Detail)
National Gallery, London.
This work shows the story of Samson
and Delilah (Judges 16). Samson has
told Delilah the secret of his strength
- his uncut hair. He then falls asleep
on Delilah's lap, and a servant begins
to cut Samson's hair. Soldiers arriving
to arrest him once his hair is shorn
can be seen in the background to the

Reputation and Legacy

At the age of 63, at the height of his powers and popularity, he died of gout. Although his relatively early death doubtless deprived Northern Europe of many masterpieces, his legacy was enormous. Under Rubens's influence, a whole school of famous painters flourished in Antwerp, while his personal output was prodigious. And even if Rubens did little but supervise a good deal of the work attributed to him, his domination and creative skills were so great that almost everything proceeding from his workshop bore the mark of his style.

He excelled in all areas of art - landscape painting, as well as portrait art, animal painting, large-scale religious art, historical and allegorical works. Not for nothing is he considered by many art critics to be, along with Rembrandt, the most important influence in Northern Europe of his day, and the greatest ever Northern exponent of the Baroque.

In 2002, his masterpiece The Massacre of the Innocents sold for a record £49.5 million.

Massacre of the Innocents (1611)
This painting shows a biblical story
from the Gospel of Matthew. The drama,
emotion and rich colour in the work
is clear evidence of the impact on
Rubens of the Italian Baroque masters
like Caravaggio.

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see: Definition and Meaning of Art.

The Life & Art of Peter Paul Rubens

The 17th Century

Those progressive painters of Western Europe who had emulated the Italian style, on the whole produced only a negative result. They failed to effect that assimilation of the Italian manner which they sought, and they brought to naught any promise which may have feebly inhered, in the old Gothic style. It remained then for the seventeenth century to witness the creation of new and idiomatic styles in Holland, Belgium, France and Spain. And here the critical date is 1630, which saw the perfection of Rubens' transformation of the Venetian manner, the full flowering of the art of Frans Hals, the beginnings of Velazquez and Rembrandt in that "dark manner" which spread through Europe from Caravaggio and his tenebrist disciples. It will be noted that, with the partial exception of Frans Hals, we still have to do with Italianism, but at last with an Italianism critically studied by first-class painter intelligences who could admire without copying, holding fast to their own native and racial ideals.

The reader need not be reminded that in the first quarter of the seventeenth century Italy offered to the Transalpine painter two competitive styles - the style of Titian and his later Venetian contemporaries; versus the style of Caravaggio. A man of painterlike spirit would reject the synthesis of the Italian eclectics, They were draughtsmen rather than painters. So the influence of the Carracci and their followers remained in abeyance till a great artist who was not a painterlike spirit, Nicolas Poussin, utilized it to the full. The radical difference between the Venetian style and that of Caravaggio may be expressed in a few antitheses. The former valued aristocracy and nobility of sentiment; the latter, character and the expression of the drastic emotions of common folk. Similarly, the Venetians emphasized richness and variety of colour and used it most decoratively; the tenebrists reduced colour to light and dark and half-tones, cared little for decorative effect, sought, above all, powerful construction and emphatic rendering of character. Now a fully decorative and colourful manner has to surrender something of character and construction, while a manner that insists on construction and character must forego something of colour and decorative effect. Such a style will tend to be a sort of strenuous draughtsmanship in light and dark. Such was the early manner even of Rubens, and even more notably that of Velazquez and Rembrandt. The good painter will naturally seek to minimize the sacrifice involved in his choice of styles. Thus a Rubens, whose propensity is chiefly for colour and decoration, will also seek to express all the character that is compatible with his aims, and a Rembrandt and a Velazquez will sublimate the once harsh means with which they achieved character and construction, so that their later work will be almost entirely decorative, while rejecting the usual decorative conventions.

The great movement in painting briefly sketched above was merely one chapter in that chronicle of high adventure which was lived in the early years of the seventeenth century. It was a moment of extravagance and expansion in many directions, The English were settling America, the Dutch the East Indies; Ameican gold was enriching Spain. Francis Bacon discovers the true method of experimental science; Kepler solves the riddle of the solar system; Grotius lays the foundations of international law; Descartes plays havoc with the traditional philosophies; a French gentleman keeps fit with a duel a week. The lives of a Shakespeare, Cyrano de Bergerac and Corneille overlap, as do those of Queen Elizabeth, Henri IV and Giordano Bruno. Genius of all sorts was in the air, and a prophetic spirit a generation earlier might have read what was impending in the writings of such free spirits as Rabelais and Montaigne. In art this moment of elation and hopefulness is most fully expressed in the painting of Peter Paul Rubens. He represents the conservative and social aspect of the new movement as Rembrandt may be said to represent its radical and individual aspect. While Rubens was a cosmopolitan person, painting in France, Spain and England, most of his career was made in the imperial city of Antwerp. When Holland had become Protestant and France was torn by religious wars, what is now Belgium remained Catholic and an isolated outpost of the Holy Roman Empire. It had commercial and cultural relations with all Europe, but the leading influence was from Italy. Its art was much coloured by that Neo-Catholic style which is grouped under the term baroque.

Baroque Art

Primarily, baroque means extravagant, and the extravagance of the new style was enlisted to bolster up the shaken authority of the Roman Catholic Church and to glorify its champions, the emperor and a host of Catholic monarchs. The style originated in Italy drawing its precedents widely from such painters as Mantegna, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, and the later Mannerist artists. Surprise, unexpectedness, an operatic expansiveness, were its leading characteristics. Baroque architecture, retaining the old fundamental symmetries, plays audaciously with the details. Pediments are interrupted in the centre; heavy moldings unexpectedly break the line; the surfaces are crowded with decorative high reliefs or with figure sculpture. The normal limitations of materials are ignored. Rushing, marble figures balance perilously or even take wing; we have curtains cut in stone or more thriftily modeled in plaster. In easel painting, the old closed compositions calculated with regard to the geometry of the frame tend to lead past the frame into the air. In mural design the wall and the roof are often painted away under the same principle of overflow. Clouds bearing alluring angelic or saintly figures hover above the astonished worshipper; he no longer looks up to a structural vault, but into a fantastic cloudland. Foreshortening, which for High Renaissance artists had been functional, is now used for its own sake as a mere display of supreme technical skill. Compositional lines are no longer a balance of right lines and easy curves but become taut, spiraling curves of short radius. Nothing is very personal or specific in this art. Its mood is generalized, animated, operatic, conventionally joyous and energetic.

It is this tinge of the theatrical in the baroque which made the older puristic critics, such as John Ruskin, criticize it for insincerity. These same qualities have made it seem exemplary to later generations of critics, who are carried away by its sheer ingenuity. The true judgment, as is usually the case, lies between these extreme opinions. It is absurd to deny the energy and resourcefulness of the baroque; equally absurd to give it equal value with the grand style of the Renaissance. The gain from the new criticism has been to free the baroque from the unjust reproach of being merely the Renaissance style in decadence. It must be regarded as a new style, with its own ideals, and as very much alive.

In the seventeenth century the baroque is important and reigns mainly in Italy. Its impact on the North, particularly in the German kingdoms, is felt strongly only in the eighteenth century. Rather little in Flanders, England, France or Spain in the seventeenth century can properly be called baroque. On the other hand the operatic spirit of the baroque was far more pervasive than its forms. But for the diffused influence of the baroque, the art of Rubens would have been quite different, though his art is only superficially baroque and formally is in the straight tradition of the Venetian Renaissance. So much explanation and definition is due the bewildered student who reads that Caravaggio, Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Rubens, Velazquez and Murillo are all baroque painters.

The baroque is often equated with the Jesuit style, and there is some kinship here. As a result of the Protestant Reformation, the authority of the Roman Catholic Church was sorely shaken. The passive defense of the Church was the reform program launched at the Council of Trent in 1545; the active defense was largely conducted by the Jesuits. They were good psychologists and saw that an institution which had lost authority could thrive only through persuasion, and of persuasiveness they made a very fine art. As teachers of youth the Jesuits were and are the most effective and best beloved of the modern world. Unquestionably the Jesuit policy was a factor in the creation of the baroque. But when we recall that Ignatius Loyola founded the order in 1534, while the baroque as a style emerged some seventy-five years later, it will be plain that we should not over-emphasize the relation between the two. Let it go at this - that the air which Rubens breathed was charged with Jesuitry and with the aura of the baroque style. It was this that conditioned him and (at least) his religious paintings and somewhat limited him, but it did not make him, and it only partly explains him.



Though born in obscurity in the little city of Siegen, in 1577, Peter Paul Rubens was born to be a courtier. His father, a Doctor of Laws of Padua, was in disgrace for a foolish love affair with the dull-witted Princess Anne of Orange. When the philandering parent died, the boy was only ten years old. His faithful and wise mother moved to Antwerp, where the youth received an early education in the ways of the great world as a page in the household of Princess Margaret of Ligne, while in a Jesuit college he was so well grounded in the classical tongues that the mastery of the modern languages was easy for him. His vocation as a painter was apparent from an early age. He worked transiently with the Italianizing painters, Tobias Verhaeght and Adam van Noort, passing at eighteen to the studio of Otho Vaenius, mediocre poet, good humanist, convinced Romanist, practitioner of a certain taste and mild charm. In this congenial atmosphere of cosmopolitan culture, young Rubens progressed rapidly and at twenty-one, in 1598, was admitted as a free master of St. Luke's Guild. We have no pictures of this time.

In May of 1600, now twenty-three years old, he left Antwerp for Italy, not to return for eight years. A couple of months later he was working for Marquis Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua. In the Gonzaga gallery were exceptional examples of works by Titian, Correggio, Tintoretto, Annibale Carracci, and Caravaggio, not to mention the tiny blond landcapes of Adam Elsheimer and excellent antique statuary. By the study of these masterpieces young Rubens greatly profited - there are experimental works which show the dramatic tension of Tintoretto and the hard edges and sooty shadows of Caravaggio, but the young painter's allegiance was already for Titian in the midday splendor of his richest colouring and energetic, off-centre compositional patterns.

Rubens was soon what he was often to be later, a confidential agent and diplomat, making on Marquis Vincenzo's behalf a trip to Spain (1603) with a gift of paintings and thoroughbred horses for Philip III. The much damaged but still magnificent Baptism of Christ, at Antwerp, was painted for Vincenzo on Rubens' return. In its strongly emotional accent and audacities of dramatic lighting it borrows heavily from Tintoretto's style of Venetian painting. Secure in his Mantuan patronage, young Rubens painted at Rome, Genoa and Venice, being everywhere received as a master. In late autumn of 1608, word came that his mother was dying, and he returned to Antwerp. There he was promptly appointed court painter at a big salary to the Regents Archduke Albert and Isabella. At the prudent age of thirty-two, 1609, he married a bonnie and amiable young woman, Isabella Brandt, and started a quantity production of big pictures on the most varied themes.

The portrait of himself and his wife (Pinakothek, Munich), shows his accomplishment at the time. Everything is strongly and knowingly asserted, but the method is unpleasantly linear, and the colour lacks fineness. What rescues it, is its candor, character and vitality. Not much more than this can be said for the many official portraits which he painted before 1520. Their merit is that of vividness, clarity and an unaffected probity. Even in the technical triumphs of his later portraiture he was, as Fromentin justly remarks, a good, not a great portraitist.

His early figure compositions are obviously and harshly composed; the writhing, wiry contour (possibly based on a misunderstanding of Michelangelo) is positively ugly; so is the construction in swarthy shadow; the mood is undeniably energetic, but melodramatically and too obviously so. In short, we find the exaggerations of a strong spirit which has not yet achieved taste and discipline.

What seem to us defects were merits for a patronage that still admired the Frans Florises and was buying the early Riberas. And the development of Rubens himself shows that he was critical of his own success. Money and fame simply poured in automatically. The demand for his great canvases was such that he had to set up what was virtually a factory. He himself rapidly supplied small colour sketches. These were converted into big pictures by his assistant. He personally supervised the work, and often added the slashing re-touches which gave the picture its character. The factory never stopped during his lifetime, and functioned almost as well in his absence as when he was present. Young painters applied eagerly for this employment. He refused a hundred of them. A Danish doctor, Otto Sperling, visited the factory in 1621 and found Rubens painting, dictating a letter, listening to the reading aloud of Tacitus, but nevertheless ready to answer questions. The anecdote well suggests the extraordinary capacity of the master for untroubled receptive and creative activity.

These studio products reveal the great executive rather than the intimate Rubens. To find the latter we must investigate his autographic sketches and the few large pictures which are wholly or mostly by his own hand. Yet the general puristic scorn of these delegated pictures is exaggerated, and due chiefly to their superabundance in the great galleries. If these canvases were rare they would seem masterly, for Rubens imposed his will and practice on his assistants, and if they never painted as well as he, they painted well enough. Perhaps to facilitate this quantity production, Rubens invented a new and beautiful technique. Where the Venetians, his models, had laid the design in solid colour and finished it with transparent glazes, Rubens reversed the process. The picture was laid in transparent colours. When these were not quite dry the preparation was crisped up by heavy accents of solid colour. It was an expeditious method, involving hours where the Venetian method had required days, and the final touches which really established the picture could be quickly made or corrected by the master himself. Incidentally, it was a most durable method. Where all other contemporary canvases have darkened badly, we see the Rubenses virtually in their original condition.

Here and there in the generally displeasing early pictures a prophetic eye might have discerned the future mastery. One of the finest is the Hero and Leander, painted before 1505 in Italy, and now in Dresden. It is melodramatic, but magnificently so. The arabesque of small nude figures tossed in a murky sea, the huge curling breaker - we shall see it again years later in the Battle of the Amazons - the cruel glint of the lightning and its reflection from the edges of clouds and surges of the sea - all this is of a fine romantic intensity. In the contorted forms of this picture there is a reminiscence of Michelangelo, but the mood and the pictorial effect are Rubens' own. It was a subject to which the exaggerations of his early manner lent themselves admirably.

By 1615, his thirty-seventh year, his experimental period was over: he had found himself. The sharpness of the transition may be vividly felt by comparing the two famous triptychs that flank the choir of the Cathedral of Antwerp. The Raising of the Cross, at the left, is still in the early manner. Learnedly and powerfully composed along the asymmetrical lines invented by Titian, it is restless, full of bumps and holes, exaggerated in light and shade, undistinguished and inharmonious in colour. The eye is repelled by it. Immediately on its completion in 1610 the Descent from the Cross was begun. It finished in 1614, and it illustrates a complete re-education in taste. The colour is still not rich or really fine, but it is reasonably harmonious and dramatically appropriate. The design is made in line, mass, dark and light. Here everything is powerful, reserved, expressive, concordant. A carping critic could only observe that discordance between the almost sculptural treatment of the central panel and the very pictorial handling of the wings. But, perhaps wrongly, nobody really looks at the glorious part of this masterpiece as mere painting. Considered as a coloured sculptural group, the Descent is magnificent. Everything reinforces by contrast or parallelism the dominant diagonally disposed curve of the suspended body. From the point of view of narrative, everybody is about his tragic business - with extraordinary modulations, from the athletes above steadying the body, to the St. John strongly curved back as he supports the weight, to senile Joseph of Arimathea fumbling to be of assistance, finally to the superbly attentive and lovely Magdalene tenderly receiving the pierced feet. One can imagine the thing more exquisitely painted, but hardly more fully and sensitively felt.


From now on masterpiece followed masterpiece - so many that one is reduced to mere enumeration. Superb the blend of sheer athleticism and ardent devotion in the Miraculous Draught of Fishes. Nothing greater here than the Last Communion of St. Francis, in which the dying saint seems a stricken runner, while the assiduous priest and attendant Franciscans might almost be his competent trainers. Everything is felt most corporeally, but at the point of universal pathos, for how transient is the body's power and glory! One has the work of a most energetic, red-haired and red-bearded Rubens, full of sympathy and understanding.

Everything is of the same optimism - the Assumptions and Enthroned Madonnas building up ornately in the diagonal off-centre balances of the Venetians; the ordered welter of such technical marvels as the various Last Judgments and the Battle of the Amazons; the great Hunts of Lions, Wolves, densely and intricately composed, hurtling yet rhythmical; most memorable perhaps, the Lance Thrust, where materially the staccato balance of diagonals is like a superb military march, while the merciful cruelty of the soldiers piercing Christ's side and breaking the legs of a crucified thief seem part of some grim necessary business of the world that goes on regardless of the feelings of the Marys and Magdalenes. Indeed the whole picture is more an apotheosis of the police power than of the theological meaning of the crucifixion.

Rubens is a yes-sayer. He believes in kings and saints, in church and state, in health, wealth, bodily efficiency of men and women. Besides believing unflinchingly in things as they are, he believes in things as they were when the gods and goddesses of Olympus lived near, even among us. To him it seems natural that they should share with the saints the oversight and protection of kings. The gods and goddesses of antiquity are as much alive and contemporary to him as his own noble and royal patrons. His obliviousness to the misery and sordidness that abound in this world may seem a spiritual blindness; it was nevertheless his essential aesthetic quality, his personal form of idealization. And here he merely extended and generalized his own superb optimism and efficiency. Doubts and hesitations never transpire in his work. Of all great artists he is the most extrovert. Naturally his art is pretty hard going for sensitive and introverted persons. It is also medicinal for such tender-mindedness.

Rubens' pictorial forms correspond perfectly to his deepest feelings. The colour is morning freshness, the straw-yellow and rose of fields and gardens associating itself with the pale azure of the sky. There is no mystery in a Rubens - just magnificent plain statement. The compositional patterns derive from the off-centre balances of Titian and the Venetians, but the tension is greater, the balance more dynamic, the curves of shorter radius. Where the curves of Titian were arrested by the frame those of Ruben rebound and come back into the picture. His plump, nude women have outraged generations of overrefined art lovers. His apologists have ruefully explained that Flemish women were like that, and the master had to do the best he could with such models as he could get. Such superfluous whitewashing ignores the fact that the good artist transform the model to his own taste, and the far more important fact that to realize his compositional ideals Rubens would have had to invent such plump and rosy women even if Antwerp had not bred them in abundance. For the rest, Rubens, like his Venetian exemplars habitually composes in shallow space, indeed is very slightly interested in space and aesthetic factor. The space is what the painted shapes require. and it is always enough.

It will be noted that in all these compositional preferences he differs radically from the baroque painters, who liked a sense of overflow beyond the frame, and played joyously and audaciously with the problem of deep space. As a constructor of the figure Rubens has no superior. Its bulk, poise, balance, weight, he renders faultlessly and with supreme ease. His expressiveness, dependent primarily on wholesome knowledge and sympathy, depends technically largely on the just and delicate distribution of lights and darks which are always colours. Such distribution is not realistic and based on optical appearances, but dramatic and emotional. It is the persisting element of refinement in methods which may seem exaggeratedly robust and almost crude. In his latest phase his always constructive use of colour will be of ineffable delicacy with no loss of strength. What has been written should show that when Sir Joshua Reynolds found a simple formula for Rubens as founder of the ornamental manner, he expressed only a half truth, and an obvious one at that. The pictures of Rubens, to be sure, rarely lack a gay, decorative quality, and they always offer much more.

To make this analytical and perhaps tedious study concrete and vivid, look closely at a reproduction of the Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. In favour of the dense dynamic balance, its massiveness, its oddly picturesque pattern, its validity in space, we must overlook something a little farfetched and operatic in the poses and expressions of the women. Very characteristic of Rubens is the determined decency with which Castor and Pollux go about marriage by capture. It is a residuum of the Renaissance decorum, and alien to the cleverness and exaggerated vivacity of the baroque.

Between 1615 to 1625, Rubens' output and activity involved scores of great pictures a year, cartoons for several series of tapestries (notably one devoted to the life of Achilles), a vast correspondence, and exacting social relations - a lifestyle that clearly required orderly habits. Thus he rose early in the stately Chateau of Steen which he had built for himself near Antwerp. Before he began to work, he rode for his health, strolled about his collection of classical marbles while a secretary read aloud from a Latin author. His body and mind stimulated, he knocked off one of those marvellous sketches; finally he went to the factory, evaluated what was going on and retouched what was ready for delivery. Here is nothing of mood or nerves, just a steady, determined, journalistic output, all of it at least tinged with his genius.

A man so engrossed with the city, court and business would hardly seem qualified for landscape painting. Indeed in most of his earlier pictures he seemed to care nothing for landscape, letting his mediocre assistants touch in such landscape backgrounds as were required. So it must have been a surprise when in 1618, his forty-first year, Rubens began to paint a series of little landscapes of an amazing freshness and sympathy. Then was no such strenuous dealing with difficult forms as Pieter Bruegel had undertaken and Jakob Ruysdael was soon to attempt. The method was loose, sketchy, improvised. But it yielded amazingly what no one earlier, save Titian, had divined - the sense of lushness, moisture, interplay of light and shadow, movement of clouds, wind in the trees. All this was effected with lively tints, sharp contrasts being avoided. This new phase must occupy us more in detail when we consider the still more animated and sensitive landscapes of Rubens' last years. Meanwhile these first landscapes may show that Rubens, wholesaler of big canvases, never got into a rut and maintained to the end his capacity for surprise and wonder.

It was characteristic of the luck that ever attended Rubens' steps that his greatest and most lasting commission, the decoration of the great gallery of the Luxembourg Palace, came to him when he was at the height of his powers. In 1621, Rubens' forty-fourth year, the Italian-born Queen-Regent Marie de Medicis called Rubens to Paris to adorn her new palace. Doubtless the twenty-one subjects were then arranged. To a modern painter the themes would seem hopeless: Henri IV falls in love with the picture of Marie; Marie disembarks at Marseilles; Marie bears Louis XII; Henri IV leaves Marie for the Dutch Wars; Marie's Reign is Beneficent; Louis XII comes of Age; Marie, in disfavor with the King, leaves Paris - this was the sort of thing with which Rubens had to wrestle.


He made the series rich, thrilling, immensely picturesque and decorative by the conventional expedient of enlisting the gods and goddesses. They are generally present: the Fates predicting Marie's fame; the Graces presiding over her education; the Virtues supporting her beneficent sway; Minerva prompting Henri IV to fall in love with Marie's picture; and again sustaining Marie as she goes into exile. Now this interweaving of human and Olympian interests has been attempted a thousand times in painting and poetry, and generally with very qualified success or at the cost of artificiality and insincerity. The only hope of carrying it off at all is that the artist believes in his gods and goddesses, kings and queens. Rubens did so believe, and the result in painting is a robust and veridical fairyland with a hint of real persons involved and of great issues at stake.

Peter Paul Rubens was no critic of the great of the earth, nor yet of existing institutions. He accepted and enthusiastically approved them. He loved their power and pomp, was really part of it himself, and proudly so. and the Medicis series is really a confession of his mundane faith. It is easy for modern radicalism to tax him with lack of imagination or even with sycophancy. But this is wisdom or hindsight and grossly unfair. In Rubens' cult of royalty was more than self-interest. His imagination was really very broad and, given the moment, profoundly just. Increasing dynastic power seemed to promise the ending of the disorders that had troubled the sixteenth century, the composing of religious feuds, the rise of strong and wise nations, the creation of a European solidarity. Such visions had hovered before Marie de Medicis' husband, Henri IV, and the cosmopolitan painter doubtless saw something prophetic in the continuation of the work of a great French king by an Italian Queen-Regent. In short, whoever feels there is any lack of imaginative vision and fervor in the apparent artificialities of the Medicis series misreads these pictures.

On the technical and decorative side this introduction of the Olympians into the French court offered distinct opportunities. A great designer and colourist could play at will with ornate costumes, rosy nudity, slight draperies, sound portraiture, generalized types. Moreover, his use of these ingredients is tactfully varied. We have pure mythology and the heroic nude in the tall panels with which the series begins and ends - the Destiny of Marie, the Triumph of Truth. In the long panels near the centre - the Apotheosis and Marie's Reign - we have almost pure symbolism and mythology. And the usual rather even distribution of real and mythological figures in these great canvases is punctuated effectively by pure narratives, re-calls to earth as it were. Such are Marie's Marriage by Proxy, Henri IV's Departure for the Dutch Wars; and even in the Flight of Marie, what counts is not the escorting Minerva and geniuses, but rather the sad dignity of Marie, the assiduous courtesy of her fantastic champion, the Duke of Eperon, and the agitation of his soldiery. Rubens has been most skillful and sensitive in creating not only in many variations of compositional elements, but also on many levels of emotional interest.

A useful panel to study, is The Debarkation of Marie at Marseilles. Behind the stern of the ship and below the gangplank, five lusty sea creatures rejoice that the sea has safely delivered the new queen to her destination. Superb, the three exulting Nereids entirely painted, or overpainted, by Rubens' hand! Above, the graceful figure of the queen holds its own amid a romantic welter of canopies, billowing flags, knights, ladies, welcoming divinities. Everything here is strange and aerial and, however specifically courtly, almost other-worldly. It seems as if the air, with the sea, vibrated powerfully in sympathy with the event. In all the history of painting the eye will rarely meet anything so nobly festive, so blithe in colour, of so strangely conceived a beauty. Surely, as he designed and painted this masterpiece, Rubens believed to the bottom of his courtier heart that the landing of Marie in France was a profoundly important and auspicious event, and, while history has recorded its reservations, it has not wholly belied him.

Naturally there is some unevenness of invention and execution in these 21 great panels, but it is unfair to confuse them with the average output of the factory. Rubens gave uncommon care to their composition, moving from Antwerp to Paris as the work proceeded. He retouched the canvases as they were being finished in the studio, and again after they were in place. So, while they inevitably lack the integral exquisiteness of the small autographic pictures of his later years, they reveal as a whole what one may call the public and civic merits of his art at their high point. They virtually mark the culmination and end of this phase of his creation. I imagine the three years between 1622 and 1625, when this work was in progress, were the years he liked best to remember as old age fell prematurely upon him. He was still to do public work of a notable sort, but in his last years it is exceptional. His ultimate painter perfection was attained in working for himself, in a kind of sublimated amateurism. The great hall adorned and ennobled by these pictures was formally opened in May of 1625, on what turned out to be an inauspicious occasion - the marriage of Marie's daughter, Henrietta Maria, to the ill-fated Charles I of England.

About a year later Rubens' wife died. His letters about her speak of respect and honour. Her vitality and good sense had been the support of his great effort. There were well-grown children to keep the Chateau of Steen from utter loneliness. For three years Rubens produced little, mostly religious art. Characteristic are the Assumption, in the Cathedral at Antwerp, and the Enthroned Madonna with Saints, in St. Augustine's. Here the diagonal compositions of Titian are the model, but these are elaborated in a florid and spectacular sense which is Rubens' own. Something of that generalized glamour which we noted in the Landing of Marie carries over without much change into these sacred themes. The lighting is theatrical, but most sensitively expressive. Some going off in his art is suggested by the unevenness of the fifteen designs for his major work of tapestry art, narrating the history of the Eucharist, 1625-1628. Here the re-fractoriness of many of the subjects rather than failing inspiration may be to blame. But, on the whole, it looked as if Ruben at fifty had reached a limit, and could now only repeat himself, unless indeed some lucky event should inspire him to a fresh start. The renovation promptly offered itself in the form of, first, a diplomatic mission to Spain, and then, remarriage, to a charming and amiable young woman.

In midsummer the Duke of Buckingham, the able if unscrupulous favourite of Charles I, appointed Rubens as a special envoy to Madrid to make peace between England and Spain. He spent some months at Madrid and while he accomplished his diplomatic mission painted many pictures. In particular he studied and even copied with intelligent admiration the light and atmospheric painting of Titian's latest manner. Their technical and spiritual unity, qualities far beyond the wholesome brilliancy of his own painting, he sought to emulate. Doubtless he shared such studies with a promising, young court painter, Diego Velasguez, who in his turn was to assimilate the strength of the aged Titian.

The full flavor of Rubens' Spanish studies can be seen in the composition sketch at Princeton representing the Death of Adonis. Since the big picture by a mediocre assistant is, or recently was, at Madrid, we may assume that there the sketch was made, and the style of this little masterpiece suggests this period for it. It is dashed off in muted tints of pale yellow, rose, azure, which seem rather sap of flowers than more material pigments, painted with nothing, yet it renders with truth and vigor the swing of trees and clouds and the most vehement actions of men and beasts, and the inextricable hurly-burly about the corpse of Adonis is knit into a stable and lovely order.

In April, 1629, Rubens sailed for England with a title of nobility from Philip IV in his portfolio and an honourary degree in prospect from Cambridge. For some seven months he continued with decreasing success his peacemaking activities, was welcomed at the court, and returned to the lonely Chateau of Steen with a commission to decorate the great ceiling of the new Palladian palace of Whitehall, designed by Inigo Jones (1573-1652). In midwinter of 1630, being fifty-two, he married a buxom and amiable girl whom he had known since her infancy, Helene Fourment. There is a personal genre-painting in the Pinakothek Munich, painted a few months after the marriage, which tells much of his new happiness. The knightly and well-preserved artist is strolling on the shadowy parterre before the loggia of his country mansion. Helene, with a big picture hat and a huge feather fan, looks smilingly out at us as she moves along confidingly with her famous man. There is a suggestion of all the amenities: young trees cast a pleasant dappling shade; a maid-servant feeds the peacocks; a page, perhaps her stepson, attends Helene deferentially; a fine setter dog rushes in to join his master; through a wicket gate one senses cooler and more secluded joys under the trees and between the well-kept hedges. What a vision of the Indian summer of a great genius!

Hereafter Helene often appears in his painting - in every variety of sumptuous attire, lightly draped as a symbol of this or that, occasionally in her glorious nudity. One feels Rubens' passion for her beautiful form, but feels it sublimated and ennobled. There is no mawkishness or innuendo about this old lover of a young thing who chronologically might have been a youngest daughter. He will still achieve great public commissions - the ceiling decoration for Whitehall, after 1630, by no means his best but after three hundred years still the most noteworthy decorative eries in England; the scenery for the triumphal entry of the Cardinal, Prince Ferdinand; the decorations for the palace of William of Orange at The Hague - but his characteristic work is now private portraits of Helene, mythologies that celebrate her nude beauty, peasant dances, garden parties of patricians, and above all, landscapes of the most fresh and ethereal charm. The method is now sublimated. A transparent tone which is neither gray nor yellow here and there cools into azure and flushes into pale rose. It no longer seems painting, but like the shifting tints and textures of a gently moving cloud, at dawn.

Most famous of these pictures of his premature old age is Helene with her Two Children, at Paris. It combines with the casual veracity of a snapshot the most exquisite handling of blond tints, while behind it is the pride and joy of an aged husband and father in an unexpected and borrowed felicity. Admirable in this time are the two versions of the Judgment of Paris. A comparision of the earlier 1633 version (National Gallery, London) with the later 1635 version (Prado, Madrid), shows how his art grew in ardor and grandeur as his strength declined. Nothing is lovelier among the mythologies of this ripe sort than the little sketch for a Diana and Endymion, at the National Gallery, London. In it is fully presaged the ardent and innocent sensuousness of the rococo style popularized by Watteau (1684-1721), Boucher (1703-1770), Fragonard (1732-1806) a century and a half away.

There is a new note in the two pictures of the Garden of Love (Prado, Madrid), and in the collection of Baron Edmund Rothschild, in Paris. Richly dressed women loll at their ease, but expectantly, while a few great gentlemen dally with the fair women whose expectation has been fulfilled. Above, before a stately, rusticated portal, little winged creatures hover and offer flowers. Rubens and his young wife, Helene, are seen embracing at the right. All this merely needs to be sublimated in a wistful sense, and you will have the Fetes Galantes of the rococo French painter Antoine Watteau.

In contrast with these social joys qualified by courtly etiquette are the energetic and racy Peasant Kermesse (Louvre, Paris), and the even finer, because simpler and more lucid, version, now in the Prado, Madrid. It is as if the weary courtier found vicarious zest in these very bodily transports of simple folk at uninhibited play. In his years of strength such themes made no appeal to him, and are absent.

How to choose among the dozen great landscapes with which Rubens solaced his tired eyes! The promise in the landscapes of fifteen years earlier is more than fulfilled. These are not portraits of places, but spaces pulsating with air, light, and sense of growing things. Some critics prefer the grave simplicity of the little Moonlight Landscape in the Mond Collection, London. Camille Corot is already implicit in it. Others love the Landscape with Chateau Steen, (National Gallery, London) with its amazingly rich and alertly handled detail, its sense of work and habitation - like an Old Bruegel distilled into a subtler essence. And there are other equally beautiful works, like the Sunset (National Gallery, London), or the Landscape with a Windmill or the Landscape with a Rainbow (Louvre, Paris), or the more overtly romantic Shipwreck of Aeneas, in Berlin. These improvisations of Rubens' failing years will give vital formulas to Watteau and Gainsborough, will dazzle and instruct the great William Turner and John Constable.

The belated idyl at the Chateau of Steen was to be brief. In 1635 Rubens retired. He was only 58, which has been the late prime of many a painter, but his incessant activity had told on him. There is a half-length self-portrait at Vienna, painted a year or two before he died. Rubens holds himself erect, but with difficulty; the gout had ravaged him. The face has set with suffering; the eyes are dull; the fine hand rests slackly on the hilt of the rapier. Rubens was eminently a Christian, and he prepared sumptuously for his last rest by painting an altarpiece for his chapel in the Church of St. James, in which he planned to be buried. The Madonna, an idealization of Helene, in the Venetian fashion, is enthroned among attendant saints. Her Child is a portrait of Helene's infant son. The saints are magnificent. A half-nude and fiercely ecstatic St. Matthew glares over his shoulder at the spectator as he brandishes his arm towards Mary. The dark-haired woman with exposed breast and lovely bare feet, who modestly approaches the Madonna, seems to be the Magdalene, and is probably drawn from one of Helene's sisters. Behind her Rubens himself, in splendid plate armour, assumes the role of the chivalric St. George, holding upright his victor's banner; while the pierced dragon lies limp at his feet. The dedication of such a picture is to the valor and moral strength of men and to the gentleness and devotion of women. This may seem to be Rubens' credo, and by it he chose to be remembered.

Rubens has never been forgotten. The sanity and animation of his character have remained exemplary. The candor and skill of his handling had nothing obscure about it. It could be, and was, imitated with fruitful results. What Sir Joshua Reynolds was somewhat deprecatingly to call the ornamental style was to be helpful and normative, generation by generation, for painters of an extrovert and life-accepting type. The influence of Rubens was very much alive in the lush compositions of that great master of Impressionism - Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and there will be successors to Renoir who will see that so precious a tradition shall not die. Titian and Rubens are the pillars of post-Renaissance painting, in so far as it seeks balance between observation, decoration, and content. This is the central tradition, with various types of classicism at the Right and various types of optical realism at the Left. It is no slight service to art to have marked out that broad middle road which the average artist, as the average human being, may most profitably tread. In Rubens we find that even balance between manual skill and fine judgment which Leonardo da Vinci regarded as the quality of the truly great artist.

Works by Peter Paul Rubens can be seen in the best art museums across the world.

Read about Rubens' successor, Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), as the leading Flemish Baroque painter in Antwerp.

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