Peter Paul Rubens

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: One of the most successful artists of his time, with a huge workshop of artists who completed many of his commissions, Rubens is regarded as the most important creator of Baroque art. As a distinguished diplomat, he used his cheerful personality and broad human interests to work for the cause of peace.

Early Life

Peter Paul Rubens was the son of a Protestant attorney from Antwerp who moved to Germany to escape religious persecution. Although Rubens was baptized a Calvinist in Germany, he became a devout convert to Catholicism. When his father died in 1587, Rubens and his mother returned to Antwerp, where he apprenticed himself to several local painters. From his last teacher, Otto van Veen (1556-1629), he acquired considerable knowledge of Italian painting. By 1600, Rubens was in Rome, studying and copying the works of the Italian Renaissance and preparing himself to become the first Northern European painter to combine the grandiose and realistic styles of the Italian and Dutch masters.

Very little survives from Rubens’ Italian period (1600-1608), but in his Portrait of the Marchesa Brigida Spinola-Doria (1606), there is evidence of his early efforts to make his mark in the tradition of international portrait painting. As Jennifer Fletcher notes, the artist’s subject came from a family that owned portraits by Titian, who was renowned for his vivid color and expressiveness. The marchesa’s exalted social position is suggested by the elegance and amplitude of her luminous dress, the crimson drapery that flows behind her in the center of the frame, and the beautifully sculpted architectural details—all of which convey a richness and harmony of effect. What makes the painting truly remarkable, however, is its liveliness. This is no staid study of a society matron. She looks as though she is about to smile as she moves through the artist’s frame. There is energy in her face, in the details of her clothing, and in the setting that makes this scene triumph over the mere reporting of details.

In 1608, Rubens returned to Antwerp but failed to reach his ailing mother in time. He planned to resume residence in Italy, but his success in Antwerp was so immediate and overwhelming (he became court painter to the Spanish viceroys of the Netherlands) and was followed quickly by his marriage in 1709 to Isabella Brant, that he never saw Italy again. His happy marriage is illustrated in a portrait of himself and his wife (1609). They are seated together in a honeysuckle bower, her hand resting gently and comfortably upon his in the center of the frame, his right foot partially underneath her flowing dress. They look out toward the viewer, forming a picture of mutual contentment and intimacy. Most striking is their sense of ease and equality. Although the artist is seated above his wife, he is also leaning toward her—any dominance he might seem to have is mitigated by the fact that his hat is cropped at the top while his wife’s is shown in full, making her larger figure command the right side of the frame. When the positioning of their bodies and their clothing is compared, it is clear that Rubens has shown a couple that complement each other in every conceivable way. This dashing portrait reveals a man on the brink of a great career.

Life’s Work

The years immediately following Rubens’ return to Antwerp were vigorous and innovative. Two large triptychs, The Elevation of the Cross (c. 1610-1611) and Descent from the Cross (c. 1611-1614), altarpieces for Antwerp Cathedral, confirmed his great ability to create monumental yet realistic works of art. The fifteen-foot central panels create a sense of deep space and perspective while also conveying great struggle and strain. The cross is raised by heavily muscled men in a powerful diagonal movement that bisects one central panel. Below the cross is a dog in the left corner sticking out its tongue in agitation while the trees in the upper right corner seem to rustle in the wind. This is a painting that concentrates on the dynamism of the event, whereas in the Descent from the Cross the limp and ravaged aged body of Christ is carefully taken down by his followers, with each one expressing grief in bodily postures and gestures that concentrate nearly all the emotion of the scene on their reactions. In their bent bodies,...

(The entire section is 1802 words.)