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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 was a prolific seventeenth-century painter. 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: Venus Before the Mirror, Samson & Delilah, The Massacre Of The Innocents, and The Judgement Of Paris. Other interesting works include: Four Studies of the Head of a Negro.
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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.
MEANING OF ART
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
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Works by Peter Paul Rubens can be seen in the best art museums across the world.
For information on art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART