Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) Part II

Rubens used the production of prints and book title-pages, especially for his friend Balthasar Moretus, the owner of the large Plantin-Moretus publishing house, to extend his fame throughout Europe during this part of his career. In 1618, Rubens embarked upon a printmaking enterprise by soliciting an unusual triple privilege (an early form of copyright) to protect his designs in France, the Southern Netherlands, and United Provinces. He enlisted Lucas Vorsterman to engrave a number of his notable religious and mythological paintings, to which Rubens appended personal and professional dedications to noteworthy individuals in the Southern Netherlands, United Provinces, England, France, and Spain. With the exception of few etchings, Rubens left the printmaking to specialists, who included Lucas Vorsterman, Paulus Pontius and Willem Panneels. He recruited a number of engravers trained by Christoffel Jegher, who he carefully schooled in the more vigorous style he wanted. Rubens also designed the last significant woodcuts before the 19th-century revival in the technique.

In 1621, the Queen Mother of France, Marie de’ Medici, commissioned Rubens to paint two large allegorical cycles celebrating her life and the life of her late husband, Henry IV, for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. The Marie de’ Medici cycle (now in the Louvre) was installed in 1625, and although he began work on the second series it was never completed. Marie was exiled from France in 1630 by her son, Louis XIII, and died in 1642 in the same house in Cologne where Rubens had lived as a child.

After the end of the Twelve Years’ Truce in 1621, the Spanish Habsburg rulers entrusted Rubens with a number of diplomatic missions. While in Paris in 1622 to discuss the Marie de’ Medici cycle, Rubens engaged in clandestine information gathering activities, which at the time was an important task of diplomats. He relied on his friendship with Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc to get information on political developments in France. Between 1627 and 1630, Rubens’ diplomatic career was particularly active, and he moved between the courts of Spain and England in an attempt to bring peace between the Spanish Netherlands and the United Provinces. He also made several trips to the northern Netherlands as both an artist and a diplomat.

At the courts he sometimes encountered the attitude that courtiers should not use their hands in any art or trade, but he was also received as a gentleman by many. Rubens was raised by Philip IV of Spain to the nobility in 1624 and knighted by Charles I of England in 1630. Philip IV confirmed Rubens’ status as a knight a few months later. Rubens was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Cambridge University in 1629.

Rubens was in Madrid for eight months in 1628–1629. In addition to diplomatic negotiations, he executed several important works for Philip IV and private patrons. He also began a renewed study of Titian’s paintings, copying numerous works including the Madrid Fall of Man (1628–29). During this stay, he befriended the court painter Diego Velázquez and the two planned to travel to Italy together the following year. Rubens, however, returned to Antwerp and Velázquez made the journey without him.

His stay in Antwerp was brief, and he soon travelled on to London where he remained until April 1630. An important work from this period is the Allegory of Peace and War (1629; National Gallery, London). It illustrates the artist’s lively concern for peace, and was given to Charles I as a gift.

While Rubens’ international reputation with collectors and nobility abroad continued to grow during this decade, he and his workshop also continued to paint monumental paintings for local patrons in Antwerp. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary (1625–6) for the Cathedral of Antwerp is one prominent example.
Rubens’s last decade was spent in and around Antwerp. Major works for foreign patrons still occupied him, such as the ceiling paintings for the Banqueting House at Inigo Jones’s Palace of Whitehall, but he also explored more personal artistic directions.

In 1630, four years after the death of his first wife Isabella, the 53-year-old painter married his first wife’s niece, the 16-year-old Hélène Fourment. Hélène inspired the voluptuous figures in many of his paintings from the 1630s, including The Feast of Venus (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), The Three Graces and The Judgment of Paris (both Prado, Madrid). In the latter painting, which was made for the Spanish court, the artist’s young wife was recognized by viewers in the figure of Venus. In an intimate portrait of her, Hélène Fourment in a Fur Wrap, also known as Het Pelsken, Rubens’ wife is even partially modelled after classical sculptures of the Venus Pudica, such as the Medici Venus.


In 1635, Rubens bought an estate outside Antwerp, the Steen, where he spent much of his time. Landscapes, such as his Château de Steen with Hunter (National Gallery, London) and Farmers Returning from the Fields (Pitti Gallery, Florence), reflect the more personal nature of many of his later works. He also drew upon the Netherlandish traditions of Pieter Bruegel the Elder for inspiration in later works like Flemish Kermis (c. 1630; Louvre, Paris).
Rubens died from heart failure, a result of his chronic gout, on 30 May 1640. He was interred in Saint James’ Church, Antwerp.
His nudes of various biblical and mythological women are especially well-known. Painted in the Baroque tradition of depicting women as soft-bodied, passive, and highly sexualized beings, his nudes emphasize the concepts of fertility, desire, physical beauty, temptation, and virtue. Skillfully rendered, these paintings of nude women were undoubtedly created to appeal to his largely male audience of patrons. Additionally, Rubens was quite fond of painting full-figured women, giving rise to terms like ‘Rubensian’ or ‘Rubenesque’ (sometimes ‘Rubensesque’). And while the male gaze features heavily in Rubens’s paintings of females generally, he brings multi-layered allegory and symbolism to his portraits. His large-scale cycle representing Marie de Medicis focuses on several classic female archetypes like the virgin, consort, wife, widow, and diplomatic regent. The inclusion of this iconography in his female portraits, along with his art depicting noblewomen of the day, serve to elevate his female portrait sitters to the status and importance of his male portrait sitters.

Rubens’s depiction of males is equally stylized, replete with meaning, and quite the opposite of his female subjects. His male nudes represent highly athletic and large mythical or biblical men. Unlike his female nudes, most of his male nudes are depicted partially nude, with sashes, armour, or shadows shielding them from being completely unclothed. These men are twisting, reaching, bending, and grasping: all of which portrays his male subjects engaged in a great deal of physical, sometimes aggressive, action. The concepts Rubens artistically represents illustrate the male as powerful, capable, forceful and compelling. The allegorical and symbolic subjects he painted reference the classic masculine tropes of athleticism, high achievement, valour in war, and civil authority. Male archetypes readily found in Rubens’s paintings include the hero, husband, father, civic leader, king, and the battle weary.

Rubens was a great admirer of Leonardo da Vinci’s work. Using an engraving done 50 years after Leonardo started his project on the Battle of Anghiari, Rubens did a masterly drawing of the Battle which is now in the Louvre in Paris. “The idea that an ancient copy of a lost artwork can be as important as the original is familiar to scholars,” says Salvatore Settis, archaeologist and art historian.

See the beginning of this article in part I




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