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    • Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)


        Painter

        Sir Peter Paul Rubens was born at Siegen in Westphalia. His family came from Antwerp, and they returned there by 1859. For six months in 1591 he became the pupil of a landscape and decorative painter, Verhaecht, who had been to Italy, and was then, for four or five years, in the studio of Adam van Noort before becoming a pupil of Otto van Veen, a travelled and scholarly painter, until 1599. He entered the Antwerp Guild in 1598, and in 1600 went to Italy and became Court Painter to Vincenzo Gonzago, Duke of Mantua. In 1603 he accompanied an embassy taking horses and pictures from Mantua to Philip III in Madrid, where he admired the Titians and Raphaels in the Spanish Royal Coll. From 1604 to 1608 he was in Mantua, Rome, Geneo and Milan: in 1606 he was in Rome, where he met Elsheimer and Paul Bril and bought Caravaggio's Death of the Virgin for Mantua. In the same year he got the commission for the altarpiece for the Chiesa Nuova (S.M. in Vallicella). The first version was not a success and was replaced by one painted on slate, to reduce reflections, which is still in the church.

        In 1608 he received news of his mother's illness and returned - too late - to Antwerp. The first version of the altarpiece was placed by him over his mother's tomb (it is now in Grenoble; a sketch in London, Courtauld Inst.). After his mother's death he intended to return to Italy, but accepted an offer to become Court Painter to the Spanish Governors of the Netherlands, an appointment he held until his death. He settled in Antwerp, where he built himself an Italianate palace, married Isabella Brandt in 1609 (Wedding Portrait, Munich), and started on what was perhaps the most energetic and fruitful career in the history of art, and one which made him the most important artist in Northern Europe and the greatest Northern exponent of the Baroque.

        In Italy he had studied the artists of the High Renaissance, particularly Titian and Michelangelo, and after his return to Flanders his first works show how deeply indebted he was to the Roman works of Caravaggio (how so many of the Masters who came after Caravaggio owe to him is quite staggering!). After the success of the Raising of the Cross (1610: Antwerp Cath.), he evolved, in the Descent from the Cross (1611-14, also Antwerp Cath.), a less passionately dramatic style, so that numerous assistants could work under him to fulfill the multitude of commissions that poured in. His letters prove how carefully he controlled the execution of his designs, and in most cases he did the final work on a picture himself to ensure something of the unity of the first sketch; the amount of personal execution was a question of price. His chief assistants were of the first ability: the young van Dyck entered his studio about 1617, and Jordaens and Snyders were employed by him for many years. Without the methods he devised for the division of labour his vast output over so many years could never have been achieved, much less maintained at so high a standard. His practice was to make small sketches, very free in handling, usually on panels with a light, streaky, buff or grey ground, the loose drawing touched in with indications of the local colour. Many of these modelli are preserved (e.g. London, Courtauld Inst. and Dulwich), and it is interesting that the contract for the Jesuit Church in Antwerp (1620) specifically allows Rubens to retain the modelli - which means that we know what the lost ceilings looked like. Some of his designs for tapestries were larger, more worked-out, and more fully coloured, as may be seen in the Constantine series (1621-2: Paris, Mobillier National, and Philadelphia), the Eucharist series (1625-8: mostly Madrid, Prado), and the recently discovered, controversial, Aeneas series (Cardiff).

        The first of his major commissions was the decoration, already mentioned, of the Jesuit Church in Antwerp, begun in 1620 with the assistance of van Dyck. This called for thirty-nine ceiling paintings and three altarpieces, which alone survive, the ceilings having been destroyed in the fire of 1718. After this he painted the Medici cycle for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris (1622-5: Paris, Louvre); the ceiling of the Banqueting hall in Whitehall, London, for Charles I, completed in 1634 (his only survivng ceiling-painting); the huge scheme of decoration (1636-40) for the Torre de la Parada, commissioned by Philip IV of Spain, on which he was still working at his death. Besides these there were countless altarpieces, portraits, hunting scenes, landscapes, religious and mythological pictures, scenes from classical history, tapestry designs, book-illustrations, and designs for triumphal processions, such as the Pompa Introitus Ferdinand for the State Entry of the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand of Spain into Antwerp (1634).

        He entered politics in 1623 and was employed on various diplomatic missions by the Governors of the Netherlands - to Holland in 1627 (when he visited Urecht and met Honthorst); to Spain in 1628 (when he made copies of the Titians he had admired in 1603, and became friendly with Velazquez); to England in 1629-30, when he was knighted by Charles I. These missions served as distractions after the death of Isabella Brandt in 1626. In 1630 he married again. The sixteen-year-old Helene Fourment became the theme and inspiration of his late mythologies and the subject of many portraits. Since gout was now limiting his activity he could devote more time to the personal side of his art in which his domestic life, hitherto kept in the background, played a dominant part. After his death, his widow wanted to destroy some of his more intimate portraits of her, such as the one in a fur coat (Het Pelske), now in Vienna.

        His output was huge and his influence almost equally so, especially in France (Rubenisme), and most galleries have one or more examples, some entirely autograph, some more or less workshop productions based on his modelli: London is particularly rich, especially in modelli (NG, Wallace Coll., Dulwich, Courtauld Inst.), as well as having the ceiling of the Banqueting House (sketch in Yale, CBA), a major building by Inigo Jones, decorated by Rubens for Charles I, the greatest patron of his time. In addition, like Raphael, he employed engravers to disseminate his ideas all over Europe.

      • Source: The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (Penguin Reference Books)
        This is the most important dictionary on art and artists ever published and an essential read.


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Updated: 2010