Peter Paul Rubens


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Tall and with noble demeanour, with regular features, rosy cheeks, brown hair and in his eyes a gleam of contained passion. His company was seductive, his temperament affable, his conversation pleasing, his wit lively and sharp, his speech calm and sensible and his tone of voice agreeable, making him eloquent and persuasive. This is how Roger de Piles described Rubens in 1699. The Flemish artist was one of the great geniuses of the Baroque and one of the most important figures in the history of art. He had remarkable artistic talent, ample humanistic knowledge, he spoke Latin and various modern languages, and was an excellent diplomat, all of which made him an example for many artists, including the Spaniard Velázquez. Rubens' family originally came from Antwerp where his father, Jan Rubens, had been an alderman after studying law at the universities of Lovaina, Padua and Rome. However, the serious political and religious situation in the Netherlands in the 1560s resulted in Jan being exiled on suspicions that he was a Calvinist. The Rubens family - Jan was married to Marie Pypelinx and the couple had various children - moved to Cologne where Jan became diplomatic agent and adviser to Anna of Saxony, princess of the house of Orange-Nassau and wife of William the Silent. The relationship between Jan and Anna of Saxony became more intimate until they were caught in flagrante by William. Adultery was punishable by death, but Anna of Saxony obtained clemency from her husband for Jan and the death penalty was reduced to imprisonment, substantial bail and exile. Jan left prison and moved with his family to Siegen, near Cologne, where Peter Paul was born on 28th June 1577. They moved back to Cologne the following year after Jan was pardoned completely, and remained there until Jan's death in 1589. Marie Pypelinx and her children returned to Antwerp soon after his death as none of them had embraced [Calvinism#CONTEXTOS#1] and nothing tied them to the German city. They settled in the centre of Antwerp where Rubens' grandfather was a successful chemist. The young Rubens had started his education in the Jesuit Catholic School in Germany and continued his studies in Antwerp. He attended Rombant Verdonck's Latin School where he studied the Classics and met Balthasar Moretus. However, his academic formation was brief as his family's economic situation was somewhat precarious and a dowry was needed for the marriageable daughter, Blandina. Consequently both Philip, the eldest child born in 1573, and Peter Paul were forced to give up their studies and earn a living. Philip gained a position as librarian in Rome, while Peter Paul entered the service of the Countess Margarita of Ligne d'Aremberg, the widow of Philip of Lalaing, in Oudenaarde. This experience served to teach him the court manners that would later be very useful on his journeys around Europe. Nevertheless, Rubens had no wish to stay in such a menial post for long (he was a page), so he decided to become a painter. We do not know why he chose this profession, but Piles suggests that "at first he had no other purpose other than that of learning it for pleasure". He initiated his first artistic apprenticeship around 1591 under Tobias Verhaecht, a landscape painter who he only stayed with for a short time. The choice of Veraecht as a teacher was quite surprising, but it was probably due to financial or family reasons, as he was a distant relative of Rubens' mother. He stayed with Veraecht for less than a year and then studied under Adam van Noort, a "skilful figure painter" but with a "abject and libertine attitude and a brutal temper" which is why the young painter left his studio for Otto van Veen's, one of the best contemporary masters in Antwerp at that time and who most influenced the style of his formative years, along with Holbein and [Dürer#pintor_en#1814], whose engravings he had copied since he was very young. In 1598, when he was twenty-one, he completed his apprentice period and passed the master's exam of the Guild of Saint Luke of Antwerp, becoming a member of the guild as an independent painter. Although his time in Otto van Veen's workshop was not necessarily very productive, van Veen did instil in his pupil the need to travel to Italy for a second apprenticeship. Peter Paul embarked on this journey on 9th May 1600 with the aim of amplifying his artistic formation by studying Renaissance works and Classical sculpture. On his journey he was accompanied by a young painter, Deodatus del Monte, and their first stop was in Venice where he met a Mantuan noble who recommended him to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua, a curious character who was a keen patron of the arts and for whose family Titian, Mantegna and Giulio Romano had already worked. Rubens remained in the service of the Duke for almost nine years, both in an artistic and diplomatic capacity. In the summer of 1601 Rubens was in Rome, where his brother Philip was working as a librarian. He was captivated by Caravaggio's work and he took special interest in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel#MONUMENTOS#7] ceiling and Raphael's decoration of the Vatican [Stanze#CUADROS#6924]. In the Eternal City he had his first public opportunity to demonstrate his talents as a painter, as he was commissioned to decorate a chapel in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome. The Archduke Albert of Habsburg, at that time governor of the Low Countries, had been cardinal of this church. Rubens' had great success with these paintings because despite his Flemish origins, they were considered Italian in style. In 1602 he was working in Mantua again where the following year he received an important mission. He had to travel to Spain to give king Philip III and his favourite, the Duke of Lerma, various gifts, including a number of paintings by great Renaissance artists, such as Titian and Raphael. The Duke of Mantua hoped to be rewarded with the post of Admiral of the Spanish fleet with these presents. When Rubens arrived in Valladolid he did an impressive portrait of [The Duke of Lerma on Horseback#CUADROS#1169], which made him famous in the Spanish court. Don Rodrigo Calderón, the Marquis of Siete Iglesias and Lerma's right-hand man, was particularly impressed. His success meant he received offers that would have allowed him to stay in Spain, but he returned to the service of Vincenzo Gonzaga, maybe because the Spanish artistic environment did not please him a that time and because he wished to continue his training. After a period in Mantua he returned to Rome where he did an important commission for the church of San Filippo Neri. Around this time he made various trips to Genoa where he painted a number of portraits of the local aristocracy, breathing freshness and vitality into the concept of the aristocratic portrait. In 1604 he received his first major commission from the Duke of Mantua to decorate the church of the Trinità in Mantua. In this work his admiration for the Venetian School - for Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and [Correggio#pintor_en#1638] - is evident. The most important paintings that he did in Italy were those done for the main altar of the Chiesa Nuova in Rome, commissioned by the oratorians at the end of 1606. In October 1608 Rubens had to return to Flanders urgently because of his mother's delicate health but he reached Antwerp after she had died. Although Rubens had agreed to Mantua, the offer made by the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, the governors of the Low Countries, could not be rejected. He was offered the post of court painter to the Habsburg Regents, meaning he could settle in Antwerp with an annual salary of 500 ducats, plus being paid extra for the paintings he did for the Spanish governors. He was also exempted from paying taxes and his debts with the Guild were forgiven. On 3rd October 1609, a year after settling in Antwerp, Rubens married Isabella Brandt, the daughter of an important local civil servant named Jan Brandt. She was fourteen years younger than the artist but this did not prevent them having an excellent relationship. They had three children: Clara Serena, Albert and Nicholas. He soon began to receive major commissions, such as The Adoration of the Magi, today in the Museo del Prado, and two large triptychs for churches in Antwerp: the Elevation of the Cross and the Descent from the Cross. These works were very successful, and they reveal his admiration for and dependence on the Italian School, from the [Carracci#pintor_en#1511] to Caravaggio, via Titian, Tintoretto and Michelangelo. A short while after settling in Antwerp he had a house built with a large garden where he had his spacious studio, an important library and a room to hold his art collections. The house was Italian in its architecture and decoration and he designed it himself. The inscriptions that decorated the arch of the garden read, "Let us leave to the gods the charge of giving us their gifts and of conceding us what is best for us, because they love man more than the men who most love themselves". "Let us ask for a healthy body and a healthy mind; for a strong soul that does not fear death, and is not afflicted by anger and vain desires". Both inscriptions reveal Rubens' stoic conception of life, in tune with a large part of the Flemish humanists at the time to whom he became close, such as Justus Lipsius, Ludovicus Nonnius and Jan Gaspar Gevartius. At this time Rubens' lifestyle was extremely methodical. He would get up at four in the morning, attend mass and then would work for twelve hours, while a reader read out loud Plutarch, Tito Livio and Seneca's works. He had a small lunch so it would not interfere with his work and then, when he had finished working, he would go for a ride on horseback around the outskirts of Antwerp. He returned home to have dinner in the company of friends, enjoying the conversation. Rubens' paintings from the 1610s still exhibit a significant dependence on the Flemish tradition, although the innovations he had learnt in Italy started to gather strength with the passing of time. This can be observed in the cycle painted for the Jesuit church in Antwerp, which consists of two large altarpieces and thirty-nine paintings for the gallery vaults and the lateral naves. In these scenes his dependence on the decoration of Venetian palaces painted by Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto is quite clear. The thirty-nine paintings were executed with the help of his workshop, where [Van Dyck#pintor_en#3568] was the main assistant. Many of Rubens' works were executed with the help of assistants from his large, productive studio because, as he himself said in 1618 to Carleton, "I am so overwhelmed by commissions for public buildings and private collections that I will not be able to accept further commissions for a number of years". Rubens did the sketches and his assistants, some of the best artists of the time such as van Dyck, Lucas Vosterman, Paulus Pontius, Jacob Jordaens and Christoffel Jeghers, executed the paintings following their master's lines. Rubens never lost control of the end result as he always retouched his assistants' work before considering it finished. He also often collaborated with other artists and had an excellent relationship with many of his colleagues. [Jan Brueghel#pintor_en#1429], Paul de Vos, Lucas van Uden and Frans Snyders were some of Rubens' habitual collaborators who worked with him on an equal footing and shared the signature of the final work. Rubens' fame as an artist went beyond the Netherlands' borders and he received commissions from all over Europe. Many of these commissions were accompanied by special distinctions and honours, such as those that he received from the Prince of Bavaria and King Christian of Denmark. His first major work for a foreign court came from Paris, to be precise from the Queen mother, [Marie de' Medicis#CUADROS#1174]. The commission was for two cycles of paintings to decorate the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. One was to exalt the memory of the deceased king Henry IV, but after much delay only the sketches were done and the work was never executed. The other was to glorify The Life of Marie de' Medicis, and in this case the cycle was completed on time. The contract was signed at the beginning of 1622 and the twenty-four paintings were presented on the occasion of Charles I of England's wedding to Princess Henrietta Marie of Bourbon in 1625. Rubens attended the wedding where he met an important and influential figure, The Duke of Buckingham, who would be of great significance in his next journey to Britain. Before travelling to Paris, between 1623 and 1625 Rubens had tried to negotiate a peace treaty between Flanders and Holland, with the help of a relative who lived in Holland. The negotiations fell through in the face of Holland's refusal to find a peaceful solution. This failure led to an intensification of military activity in the area, and Ambrosio de Spinola took the stronghold of Breda in 1625, an episode which was later immortalised by Velázquez in [The Surrender of Breda#CUADROS#31]. Another important cycle done by Rubens in 1625 was the design for tapestries of The Triumph of the Eucharist, commissioned by the Infanta Isabella, governor of the Netherlands and one of the Flemish master's main clients. The series was for the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid, where the originals can still be seen today. In 1626, shortly after returning from Paris, Rubens and his family left Antwerp where there was a plague epidemic, and went to Laeken, where they had a country house but sadly Isabella died, leaving the painter with two children. The loss of his wife caused him great suffering and possibly in an attempt to forget, he participated in diplomatic missions to Spain and England, with the aim of achieving peace between the two countries and bringing to an end a conflict that was ruining the Netherlands' economy and had caused the death of a significant number of men and women from the area. Secret peace conversations had in fact been taking place for some time between Rubens and Gerbier, a Flemish painter highly trusted by the Duke of Buckingham. However, the Count Duke of Olivares' opposition to ending the conflict meant these initial conversations failed completely. At the beginning of 1628, Ambrosio de Spinola convinced [Philip IV#PERSONAS#17] to resume negotiations, although at first the King did not trust the painter to carry out such an important task. Rubens' arrival in Madrid in August changed the king's mind and he named Rubens envoy for Flanders, entrusting him with the negotiations with London. The Flemish master's stay in the Spanish court meant he came into contact with Titian's work and according to [Pacheco#pintor_en#2920], he copied all Titian's paintings in the Spanish royal collection. His rediscovery of Venetian art produced a decisive change in Rubens' painting, abandoning the sculptural forms of previous works to take an interest in a world in which light and colour played a vital role. Before leaving for London in April 1629, he also had the opportunity to do some paintings, such as the equestrian portraits of Philip IV and Philip II and the [Immaculate Conception#CUADROS#1179] for the Marquis of Leganés, today in the Prado. During his visit to Madrid, Rubens met Velázquez and was one of those who encouraged the young Sevillian to travel to Italy to expand his artistic knowledge. Rubens was in London for ten months but he hardly had any time to paint, despite Charles I being a great art lover. He received all kinds of honours, including a honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge, he visited art collections and strengthened his links with antiquarians and humanists. Tired of spending so much time away from home, he wrote to his friend Gevaerts that "more than anything in the world I would like to return to my house and stay there for the rest of my life". In 1630 with his diplomatic duties almost resolved - the treaty would be signed later that year - he embarked from Dover on 23rd March, bringing his travels to an end and having accomplished both his personal objectives, he was knighted by the English and Spanish kings, and his diplomatic ones. Once he was back in Antwerp he asked the Archduchess Isabella "as the only reward for my services that I be exempted from further diplomatic missions and that I be allowed to serve her from my own house. Of all the favours she has granted me this was the one that was most difficult to obtain". When he had achieved this, his next objective was to find a wife, "a young woman from an honourable but bourgeois family, because nobody will ever convince me to marry a noblewoman. Their pride, an inherent vice of the aristocracy and especially of the female sex, frightens me and that is why I wish to choose someone who is not ashamed of seeing me pick up paintbrushes. And to be honest, it would be hard for me to exchange the treasure of my freedom for the embraces of an old woman". The chosen one was sixteen-year old Hélène Fourment, the daughter of a prosperous silk and tapestry who was a very close friend of Rubens. The marriage to the young Hélène was like a tonic for the painter, giving him the will to enjoy life. The couple had five children, Clara Johanna, Franz, Isabella Hélène, Peter Paul and Constancia Albertina, born after the painter's death. Hélène became the painter's main source of inspiration, modelling for his paintings of saints and Venuses. Their martial happiness is expressed in paintings such as [The Garden of Love#CUADROS#1182] in the Prado and the numerous portraits of his wife, in some of them accompanied by their children. One of the Infanta Isabella's last commissions to the painter was for the Saint Idelfonso triptych for the church of St. James of Coudenberg in Brussels. The governor died in 1633 and was succeeded by Philip IV's younger brother, the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand of Austria. The Council of Antwerp invited the new governor to make a state entry into the town, and Rubens was in charge of the preparations. All the artists of Antwerp, with the exception of Crayer and van Dyck, participated in the works of the "Pompa Introitus Ferdinandi", decorating the town with five triumphal arches and four scaffolds that were admired by Don Ferdinand on 17th April 1635 in a tour of the town that lasted some two hours. Rubens served the new governor and did a spectacular equestrian portrait of him, which today is in the Prado. His last works for the European monarchies were for Spain and the British Isles. For King Charles I he did paintings for the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall in London, dedicated to exalting the reign of James I. For Philip IV of Spain he did another important decorative series for the [Torre de la Parada#CUADROS#1188], Philip's hunting lodge in the Monte del Pardo, near Madrid. He was commissioned to do some 120 canvases, of which 63 were on a mythological theme and the others were of hunting scenes, which were given to his "specialists", Paul de Vos and Peter Snavers. The majority of the Torre de la Parada canvases were lost in 1710, as a result of the sacking of the lodge by the Archduke Charles' troops during the Spanish War of Succession. Only forty of the original paintings survive today, 14 of which are mythological scenes inspired by Ovid's "Metamorphoses". Rubens did the oil sketches for the canvases in about two months. The paintings were executed by his assistants Erasmus Quellinus, Theodor van Thulden, Jan Cossiers, Cornelis de Vos and Jacob Jordaens, and Rubens himself retouched the works before sending them to Madrid. He began to suffer from gout in 1627 and the bouts became more and more frequent, forcing him to delegate much of his work to assistants. Tired of the world of the court and wishing to "live a quiet life with my wife and children and not desiring anything else in the world other than to live in peace" he bought the country estate of the Château de Steen on the outskirts of Antwerp, where he spent more and more time painting landscapes for his own pleasure, delegating work and the running of the workshop to Lucas Fay d'Herbe. In a letter to his friend Peiresc he said, "three years ago, thanks to divine grace, I managed to recover my peace of mind after renouncing any occupation other than that of my beloved profession (...) I felt lost in that maze, hounded day and night by an endless succession of urgent worries, far from home for long months and forced to remain permanently at the Court". Curiously this final period of peace and happiness was when he painted his most violent and cruel religious paintings, as we can see in the Martyrdom of Saint Livinus, in the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts in Brussels. Rubens' last work was the canvas Andromeda and Perseus, in the Prado, which he did not finish, dying in his house in Antwerp on 30th May 1640, shortly before his sixty-third birthday. The Baroque period had lost the painter who had best interpreted its premises. His influence was overwhelming, both because of the large number of artists who flocked to his studio and because of the copies made of his work, which reached all the European courts and became a vital element in young artists' apprenticeship.

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