considered the most important of the 17th century, whose style came to
define the animated, exuberantly sensuous aspects of baroque painting.
Combining the bold brushwork, luminous color, and shimmering light of
the Venetian school with the vigor of the art of Michelangelo and the
formal dynamism of Hellenistic sculpture, Rubens created a vibrant style,
with an energy that emanates from tensions between the intellectual and
the emotional, the classical and the romantic. For more than two centuries
after his death, the vitality and eloquence of his work continued to influence
such artists as Jean-Antoine Watteau in the early 18th century and
Delacroix and Pierre Auguste Renoir in the 19th century.
Rubens's father, Jan Rubens, was a prominent lawyer and Antwerp alderman
who converted from Catholicism to Calvinism. In 1568 he left Flanders
with his family to escape persecutions against Protestants. Peter Paul
was born in exile in Siegen, Westphalia (now in Germany), also the birthplace
of his brother Philip and his sister Baldina. In Westphalia, Jan Rubens
became the adviser and lover of Princess Anna of Saxony, wife of Prince
William I of Orange (William the Silent).
When Jan Rubens died in 1587, his widow returned the family to Antwerp,
where she and the children became Catholics. After studying the classics
in a Latin school and serving as a court page, Peter Paul decided to become
a painter. He apprenticed in turn with Tobias Verhaecht, Adam van Noort,
and Otto van Veen, called Vaenius, three minor Flemish painters influenced
by 16th-century Mannerist artists of the Florentine-Roman school. The
young Rubens was as precocious a painter as he had been a scholar of modern
European languages and classical antiquity. In 1598, at the age of 21,
he was accorded the rank of master painter of the Antwerp Guild of Saint
Shortly thereafter, following the example of many northern European artists
of the period, Rubens traveled to Italy, the center of European art for
the previous two centuries. In 1600 he arrived in Venice, where he was
particularly inspired by the paintings of
Paolo Veronese, and
Tintoretto. Later, while living in Rome, he was influenced by the works
of Michelangelo and
Raphael, as well as by ancient Greco-Roman sculpture.
Vincenzo Gonzaga, the duke of Mantua, employed Rubens for about nine years.
Rubens copied Renaissance paintings for the ducal collection, but he was
also able to execute original works. In 1605 he served as the duke's emissary
to King Philip III of Spain.
During his years in Italy, Rubens was exposed to the early baroque works
of contemporary Italian painters Annibale Carracci and
he associated with some of the leading humanist intellectuals of the day.
Gradually, the bourgeois Flemish painter became a gentleman artist of
It was news of his mother's impending death that brought Rubens back to
Antwerp in 1608. Although he did not arrive in time to see his mother
alive, he remained in Antwerp, where he married Isabella Brant the following
year. While in Italy, Rubens had formulated one of the first innovative
expressions of the baroque style, which on his return earned him recognition
as the foremost painter of Flanders. He was immediately employed by the
burgomaster of Antwerp. His success was further confirmed in 1609, when
he was engaged as court painter to the Austrian archduke Albert and his
wife, the Spanish infanta Isabella, who together ruled the Low Countries
as viceroys for the king of Spain. The number of pictures requested from
Rubens was so large that he established an enormous workshop, in which
he would execute the initial sketch and final touches while his apprentices
completed all the intermediary steps.
In addition to receiving court commissions from Brussel and abroad, the
highly devout Rubens was much in demand by the militant Counter Reformation
church of Flanders, which regarded his dramatic, emotionally charged interpretations
of religious events-such as the Triptych of the Raising of the Cross (1610-1611,
Antwerp Cathedral)-as effective instruments for spiritual recruitment
and renewal. Prosperity allowed Rubens to build an Italianate residence
in Antwerp, where he housed his extensive collection of art and antiquities.
Between 1622 and 1630 Rubens's role as a diplomat was equal to his importance
as a painter. In 1622 he visited Paris, where the French queen Marie de
Médicis commissioned him, for the Luxembourg Palace, to depict
her life in a series of allegorical paintings, which he completed in 1625.
Despite the keen loss Rubens felt after the death of his wife in 1626,
he continued to be highly productive. In 1628 he was sent by the Flemish
viceroys to Spain.
While in Madrid, he received several commissions from King Philip IV of
Spain, who made him secretary of his Privy Council. Rubens also served
as a mentor to the young Spanish painter
Diego Velázquez. After
a delicate diplomatic mission to London in 1629, Rubens was knighted by
a grateful King Charles I of England, for whom he executed several paintings,
as well as the preliminary sketches (finished in Antwerp, 1636) for the
ceiling mural in the Whitehall Palace Banqueting Hall.
From 1630, when he married Hélène Fourment, until his death,
Rubens remained in Antwerp, primarily at Castle Steen, his country residence.
During the final decade of his life, he continued to execute commissions
for the Habsburg monarchs of Austria and Spain. Increasingly, he also
painted pictures of personal interest, especially of his wife and children
and of the Flemish countryside.
The concerns of Rubens's late style, and indeed of his whole career, are
summarized in The Judgment of Paris (1635, National Gallery, London).
In this painting, the richness of creation is symbolized by the voluptuous
goddesses and the verdant landscape against which they pose. Luxuriant
color, glowing light and shade, sensuous brushwork, and an elegant composition
all serve to further the meaning of the narrative: Paris's selection of
the most beautiful goddess.