At Large  June 22, 2022  Marissa Lupkas

The Art and Life of Peter Paul Rubens

Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens, detail of Portrait of the Artist, 1623. Oil on panel.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens is a world-renowned Flemish Baroque artist of the seventeenth century. Categorized as an Old Master within the canon of art history, his work is characterized by a high concentration of color, movement, and form. His oeuvre traverses genres and mediums as he painted portraits, history paintings, both mythological and allegorical tableaus, landscapes, and religious subjects.

Rubens’ work depicts more than visually dynamic scenes. Many of his masterpieces additionally capture the socio-religious conflicts of the period. This article is a brief exploration of Rubens’ biography with a focus on his early inspirations, Counter-Reformation works, and diplomatic ventures.

Rubens was born in Siegen, Germany to a Protestant family in 1577. When he was only ten years old, his father’s sudden passing prompted the family to return to Antwerp—his mother’s home before her religious exile. To avoid further persecution and regain familial property upon their return, the Rubens family embraced and converted to Catholicism. Notable Rubens scholar Thomas Glen suggested that "it might therefore be properly said that Peter Paul and the city of Antwerp grew in their new faith together, each contributing to the cultural development of the other.”

Wikimedia Commons.

Caravaggio, The Seven Works of Mercy, 1606-1607. Oil on Canvas.

Classically educated in the Humanist manner, Rubens studied various aspects of the ancient world through language, art, and literature. This early education lead to a great passion for classics and informed Rubens’ visual compositions throughout his life. 

At fourteen, he apprenticed under noteworthy Flemish artists, including Tobias Verhect, Adam van Noort, and Otto van Veen, all of whom influenced his vast range of expertise. 

Although an established member of the Guild of St. Luke by twenty-one, it wasn’t until Rubens’ tenure in Italy that he would blossom into the genius we know today. During his eight years abroad, Rubens worked as the court painter to Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, where he continued enhancing his techniques through the study of classical sculpture, Venetian painting, and by working alongside the like of Caravaggio.

Breathing life with the stroke of black chalk on paper, Rubens’ drawing of the Greek sculpture Laocoön and his sons highlights the young artist’s precision of detail and expert theatricality. Elements of the contemporaneously popular Baroque style and the naturalism popularised by Caravaggio rounded out Rubens’ work.

Peter Paul Rubens, 1601-1602, Torso of Laocoön, Black chalk on paper, Kupferstichkabinett Dresden. Wikimedia Commons.
Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens, Torso of Laocoön, 1601-1602. Black chalk on paper.

Hagesandros, Athenedoros, and Polydoros, Laocoön and his sons, c. 150 BCE. Marble.
Wikimedia Commons.

Hagesandros, Athenedoros, and Polydoros, Laocoön and his sons, also known as the Laocoön Group. Marble, copy after a Hellenistic original from c. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506.

One of his first large-scale commissions after his return to Antwerp in 1608 was the biblical scene, The Massacre of the Innocents. Reflecting the political and religious tensions of the period, and warfare within Antwerp and the Netherlands, this painting can be interpreted as a plea against continued persecution, bloodshed, and loss of human life at the hands of the Spanish Armada during the Counter-Reformation.

The artwork features infanticide and the forced separation of mother and child. While the scene is horrid, the viewer is left unable to shake an awareness that this is likely one of many grossly inhumane occurrences. With striking and gruesome dynamism, Rubens’ composition additionally situates the viewer as a present bystander to unbridled carnage and screams of terror. The visual narrative is meant to be unsettling and visceral and to illuminate the atrocities of violence that are remarkably similar to contemporary events.

Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1610. Oil on plank.

In juxtaposition to the actions in the scene, it is impossible to ignore the harmonious culmination of Rubens’ education and skills in this artwork. Saturated with rich color, high emotions, and dynamic contortions, the visual landscape secretes the accouterments of Baroque and Counter-Reformation paintings. 

Similar in nature, and celebrated as one of the finest Counter-Reformation altarpieces, is Rubens’ Elevation of the Cross Triptych now housed in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.

Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens, Raising of the Cross Triptych, 1610-1611. Oil on Canvas. Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.

In 1609, Rubens was appointed as not only a court painter of Albert VII and Isabella Clara Eugenia, but also as an ambassador and diplomat of the Netherlands. He kept these positions for most of his life as they allowed him to expand the breadth of his work and take on additional commissions.

Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Disembarkation at Marseilles, 1622-1625. Oil on canvas.

One of his most notable artistic and diplomatic feats was the Marie de Medici cycle, an allegorical telling of her life and her husband, King Henry IV of France, in twenty-four paintings. It was completed in 1624.

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