III. RUBENS: 1577–1640

The greatest of the Flemings was born in 1577 of a long line of successful businessmen; he continued the line. His father, Jan Rubens, studied law at Padua, married Maria Pypelinckx, and was elected an alderman at Antwerp at thirty-one. Accused of Protestantism and excluded by name from the amnesty of 1574, he fled with his wife and four children to Cologne. Chosen as legal adviser by Anne of Saxony (the separated wife of William of Orange), he committed adultery with her and was imprisoned by the Prince at Dillenburg. Maria forgave her husband, wrote him tender and touching letters,II pleaded and labored for his liberation, and obtained it after two trying years, on condition that Jan live under surveillance at Siegen in Westphalia. She joined him in 1573, and it was probably there that Peter Paul was born. He was baptized by Lutheran rites, but while he was still a child the family was converted to Catholicism. In 1578 Jan moved with his family to Cologne, where he practiced law and prospered. When he died (1587) Maria and the children went to live in Antwerp.

Rubens received formal education only till fifteen, but he added to it much reading and experience. For two years (1590–91) he served as page to the Countess of Lalaing at Audenaarde; there, presumably, he learned French and the fine manners that distinguished him from most artists of his time. His mother, perceiving his flair for drawing, apprenticed him to Tobias Verhaecht, then to Adam van Noort, then to Otho Vaenius, a man of wide culture and courtly speech. After eight years with this admirable teacher, Rubens, now twenty-three, went to Italy to study the masterpieces whose fame agitated all pictorial souls. At Venice he showed his own work to a gentleman in the retinue of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua; soon Rubens was living in the ducal palace of Mantua as court painter. Two pictures that he made there already touched mastery: Justus Lipsius and His Pupils,8 in which the pupils of the famous scholar include Peter and his brother Philip; and a Self-Portrait,9 showing Rubens half bald at twenty-five, but bearded, bold, and alert. He made trips to Rome to copy pictures for the Duke, and to Florence, where he saw (and later idealistically painted) the marriage of Maria de’ Medici to the absent Henry IV. In 1603 the Duke sent him with a diplomatic mission to Spain, bearing gifts to the Duke of Lerma; the minister accepted as originals the copies that Rubens had made, and the artist returned to Mantua as a successful diplomat. On a second trip to Rome he settled there permanently with his brother, who was librarian to a cardinal. Pieter now painted a multitude of saints; one of these pictures, St. Gregory Worshiping the Madonna,10 he rated as his first great picture. In 1608, hearing that his mother was ill, he rushed north to Antwerp and was deeply moved to find her dead. Her wise and patient love had helped to give him the cheerful disposition that blessed his life. Meanwhile he had learned much in Italy. The luscious color of the Venetians, the sensualism of Giulio Romano’s frescoes at Mantua, the pliant grace of Correggio’s female figures at Parma, the pagan art of pagan and Christian Rome, the reconciliation of Christianity with the enjoyment of wine, women, and song—all these passed into his blood and art. When Archduke Albert made him court painter at Antwerp (1609), Gothic remnants disappeared from Flemish painting, and the fusion of Flemish with Italian art was complete.

It was part of his unconscious wisdom that he had been away from the Netherlands during eight years of war, and that he received his appointment in the first year of the truce. It was precisely in the next twelve years that Antwerp and Brussels restored their cultural life. Rubens was no small part of that revival; his biographer lists 1,204 paintings and 380 drawings,11 and probably many others escaped history. This fertility is unparalleled in the history of art; and almost as remarkable were the diversity of subjects and the rapidity of execution. “My talent is of such a kind,” Rubens wrote, “that no commission, however great in size or varied in subject matter, ever daunted me.”12 He finished in twenty-five days the three panels of The Descent from the Cross for the Antwerp cathedral, and in thirteen days the immense Adoration of the Kings now in the Louvre. In addition to his court salary of five hundred florins a year, he received payment for each individual product, and he charged at a lordly rate; e.g., 3,800 florins ($47,500?) for the two masterpieces just named—i.e., one hundred florins ($1,250?) per day.13 Part of this, of course, went to his numerous assistants, several of whom were themselves registered as masters in the artists’ guild. Jan “Velvet” Brueghel painted flowers in Rubens’ pictures, Jan Wildens painted landscapes and accessories, Paul de Vos painted minerals and fruit, Frans Snyders evoked the fine-pointed head of a dog in Diana Returning from the Chase,14 and we do not know how much is Snyders and how much is Rubens in the powerful hunting scenes in the Dresden and Munich galleries and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In some cases Rubens drew the figures and left the painting to his aides. To his clients he gave a conscientious account of the degree in which the pictures he sold them were by his own hand.15 Only in this way could he meet the demands made upon him. His studio became a factory, reflecting the business methods of the Netherlands economy. His fertility and celerity sometimes lowered the quality of his product, but he neared perfection often enough to become the god of Flemish art.

Now he felt secure enough to marry (1609). Isabella Brant was the daughter of an Antwerp lawyer and alderman, and therefore a fit mate for the son of an Antwerp lawyer and alderman. Rubens went to live in her father’s house till his own palatial home on the Wappens Canal was finished. In one of his finest paintings16 Peter and Isabella are pictured in the happiness of early marriage: she hidden in overflowing robes and laced in flowered bodice, her hand laid trustfully and possessively upon his, her proud face rising out of an enormous blue ruff, her head crowned with a cavalier hat; he in ripe manhood and success, with sturdy legs, blond beard, handsome features, and ribboned hat. Isabella was allowed only seventeen more years of life; but she gave him children whom he raised and portrayed lovingly; see the curlyheaded boy in the Berlin Kaiser-Friedrich Museum, plump and happy, playing with a dove, and see him again, sobered by full seven years, in The Sons of the Artist.17 Only a good man could have painted these portraits.

At the same time he was basically a pagan, unabashedly in love with the human body, male as well as female, in all the intoxication of athletic strength or easeful curves. It is a symbol of his Flanders that it enjoyed his profane mythologies—riots of unimpeded flesh—while the churches welcomed his interpretations of religious themes. He could not quite make up his mind between Mary and Venus; probably he felt no contradiction between them, for both of them brought money. In The Worship of Venus18 the pagan element is unrestrained—a parkful of bacchantes modestly hiding an elbow or a knee and embraced by goaty satyrs, while a dozen infants dance around a statue of the goddess of love. Though these pagan subjects echo his stay in Italy, his Venuses lack all classic line; they cannot live in the north on sun and air and wine, as in the south; they must eat and drink to cushion themselves from rain and mists and cold; Teutonic flesh, like British whiskey—English or Scotch—is a climatic defense. One of Rubens’ pictures—three bulging nudes—is entitled Without Wine and Bread Venus Is Cold;19 he was too courtly to say “without meat and beer.” So he saw nothing out of scale in a Shepherd Making Love,20 which shows a shepherd trying to seduce three hundred pounds; there’s nothing good or bad, beautiful or ugly, but environment makes it so. In The Rape of the Sabines21 it is all that two mighty Romans can do to lift one of their ravishing ravished captives upon a horse. Even in The Consequences of War22 there is no emaciation. Diana Returning from the Chase23 is no Greek goddess trim and chaste, but a Flemish housewife, broad-shouldered, muscular, matronly; in all that massive picture only the dog is slim. The Rubensian woods are full of satyrs squeezing avoirdupois, as in Ixion and Hera24and The Four Corners of the World;25 and, as we might have expected, The Origin of the Milky Way26 is no nebular hypothesis, but a fat Hausfrau squirting streams of milk from a congested breast. The Three Graces,27 however, are relatively svelte, and in TheJudgment of Paris28 two of the ladies conform to later fashions; one is among the fairest female figures in art. Usually, in these pagan pictures, there is far more than flesh; Rubens poured into them the rich abandon of his fancy, a hundred accessories filling out the scene, delineated with careless care, and leaping to the eye with color, warmth, and life. Nor is there any prurience in the billowy display; it is merely animal vitality, mens plena in corpore pleno; not one of these pictures offers erotic stimulus. Rubens himself was anomalously well-behaved for an artist necessarily high-strung and sensitive to color and form; he was known as a good husband, a “solid family man,” untouched with any scandal of gallantry or intrigue.29

The ecclesiastics of Flanders, Italy, and Spain recognized the innocence of his sensuality, and had no qualms in asking him to illustrate again the story of Mary, Christ, and the saints. He accommodated them, but in his own unhackneyed way. Which of his countless predecessors visualized with fuller imagination, or painted with subtler skill, the ancient theme of The Adoration of the Kings?III30 Who would have dared to center the composition upon the fat belly of a bronzed and turbaned Ethiopian looking in colorful disdain upon the pale faces around him? Who would have dreamed that this pagan peering with eye and brush into every nook and cranny of the female form would love the Jesuits, would join their Marian Congregation, and would perform the exercises prescribed by Ignatius Loyola to cleanse the soul with visions of hell?31 In March 1620 he contracted with the Jesuits to design, before the end of the year, thirty-nine pictures to cover the ceilings of the splendid baroque church that they had begun to build in Antwerp in 1614. He made the drawings, Vandyck and others turned these into paintings, nearly all of which were destroyed in 1718. For the high altar Rubens himself painted two major works, Ignatius Healing the Possessed and The Miracles of St. Francis, both now in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Nevertheless, Rubens was a Catholic only in the Renaissance sense, and a Christian only by location. His paganism survived within his piety. He was not quite comfortable with Virgins and saints; his Madonnas are robust women clearly fitter to manage a man than to beget a god. In The Madonna in a Garland of Flowers32 Mary holds up not a divinity but a handsome boy displaying his equipment to the world; and The Return from Egypt33 shows Christ as a curlyheaded lad, and Mary dressed like a Flemish matron wearing her new hat on a Sunday walk in the park. Even in The Elevation of the Cross (in the Antwerp cathedral) Rubens’ interest in anatomy dominates the religious motif: Christ is a virile athlete, not a dying god. In The Blow of the Lance34 everything again is anatomy: Christ and the thieves are massive figures, every straining muscle shown; the women at the foot of the Cross are posing for the artist rather than fainting with grief; Rubens has not felt the scene.

At least five times Rubens challenged Titian with an Assumption of the Virgin; in the most famous of these efforts35 the Madonna seems lifeless, and the living creatures are the Magdalen and the startled Apostles at the empty tomb. Finer is the great triptych36commissioned by the Archduchess Isabel for the Confraternity of St. Ildefonso in Brussels. In the central panel the Virgin, descended from heaven, presents to the Archbishop of Toledo a chasuble direct from Paradise; the saint is all humility, “breathless with adoration”; while in the side panels Isabel and Albert lay aside their crowns and kneel in prayer; here for a time Rubens gave life to piety. And in St. Ambrose and the Emperor Theodosius37 he caught and conveyed the mysterious power and authority of the Church: the Archbishop of Milan, armed only with priests and an acolyte, but with a head of majesty, drives from the cathedral the Emperor backed with awesome guards but burdened with unshriven cruelty. Rubens rarely failed with old men, for in them, especially, the face is an autobiography, and offers visible character to perceiving art. See the patriarch’s head in Lot and His Family Leaving Sodom38—one of the finest Rubens pictures in America.

He returned with gusto to secular subjects, mixed with mythology, when Marie de Médicis offered him the most tempting contract of his career. On February 16, 1622, he signed an agreement to paint, within four years, twenty-one large pictures and three portraits commemorating events in the life of Marie and her husband, Henry IV. The Queen invited him to come and live at the French court; he had the good sense to stay home. In May 1623 he took the first nine panels to Paris. Marie liked them, Richelieu admired them. The series was completed in 1624; Rubens took the remainder to Paris and saw them set up in the Luxembourg Palace. In 1802 the pictures were transferred to the Louvre, where nineteen of them now enjoy a room all their own. Those who have seen and studied them will not grudge the twenty thousand crowns ($250,000?) paid to Rubens for his work, and doubtless shared by him with his aides. All in all, these paintings are his supreme achievement. If we allow for some marks of haste, and accept the incredible story as we do in Ovid, Shakespeare, and Verdi, we shall find all of Rubens here except his occasional piety. He loved the splendor of court ritual, the majesty of royal power; he never tired of plump women, rich raiment, and gorgeous drapery; he had lived half his days with the gods and goddesses of classical mythology; now he brought all these together in a flowing narrative, with an inventiveness of episode, an opulence of color, a mastery of composition and design, that made the series an epic and opera in the history of painting.

Only two more honors were wanting to Rubens’ apotheosis—to be made a diplomat and to receive a patent of nobility. In 1623 the Archduchess Isabel used him as negotiator in hopes to renew the truce with Holland; Rubens had his own reason for promoting peace, since his wife aspired to inherit a fortune from her Dutch uncle.39 These efforts failed; nevertheless Isabel persuaded Philip IV to ennoble him (1624), and made him “Gentleman of the Household of Her Most Serene Highness”—i.e., herself. Later the King protested against her employing “so mean [unpedigreed] a person” to receive foreign envoys and discuss “affairs of such great importance”;40 yet Isabel sent Rubens to Madrid a year later (1628) to help arrange a peace between Philip IV and Charles I. He took some of his paintings with him; the King revised his notion of pedigree and sat to Rubens for five portraits, as if Velázquez were not making enough. The two artists became good friends, the Spaniard, then twenty-nine, modestly deferring to the genial Fleming, then fifty-one. Finally Philip appointed the “mean” Rubens as his envoy to England. In London the artist successfully concluded a treaty of peace, despite the emissaries and the bribes of Richelieu to the contrary. Rubens painted some English portraits—the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham,41 and the magnificent face, beard, and armor of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel.42 Having paved the way for Vandyck, he returned to Antwerp (March 1630) with a degree from Cambridge and a knighthood from Charles.

Meanwhile his first wife had died (1626), and, as Flemish custom required, the funeral was celebrated with a lavish banquet that cost the artist-diplomat 204 florins ($2,800?) “on food and drink and hired plate”;43 death in Flemish society was an almost prohibitive luxury. Rubens drowned his loneliness in diplomacy. In 1630, aged fifty-three, he married Helena Fourment, aged sixteen. He needed beauty about him, and she had already the warm coziness that filled his art and his dreams. He painted her again and again, in every garb and none: in her wedding costume,44 holding a glove,45 happy under a saucy hat,46 hiding only her hips in a fur coat,47 and, best of all, walking with Rubens in their garden48—this last is one of the peaks of Flemish painting. Then he showed her with their first-born,49 and later with their two children50—a presage of Renoir; not to speak of the pictures in which she posed voluptuously as Venus or demurely as the Mother of God.

He painted his beloved rulers, Albert and Isabel, without flattery; we see them in the Vienna and Pitti galleries probably as they were—governing a troubled land with all the good will compatible with Spanish ideals. He found fine types of manhood and womanhood in Flanders; he pictured them in his painting of Jean Charles de Cordes and his pretty pouting wife,51 and in the portrait of Michael Ophovius,52 Bishop of’s Hertogenbosch; and he left us a powerful image of the invincible Spinola.53 But portraiture wasnot Rubens’ forte; he gives us no subtle insights like Titian, no revelations from the depths as in Rembrandt. The greatest of his portraits is that which he painted of himself in 1624 for the future Charles I:54 immense gold-tasseled hat, revealing only the great forehead of the bald head; penetrating eyes in quizzical glance; the long sharp nose that seems to go with genius; the bristling mustache and fine red beard; this is a man well aware that he is at the top of his craft. Yet something of the physical vitality, sensuous enjoyment, and calm content that had shone in the picture of himself with Isabella Brant has gone with the years. Only failure wears out a man faster than success.

He was rich, and he lived in grand style; his costly home in Antwerp was one of the sights of the city. In 1635 he bought for 93,000 florins an extensive estate and feudal castle in the lordship of Steen, eighteen miles out, and took the title Lord of Steen. He spent his summers there, painted landscapes, and tried his polyphonic hand at genre. Amid his luxuries, with three maidservants, two grooms, and three horses, he continued to work hard, finding his happiness in his family and his work. His wives, children, patrons, aides loved him for his serenity of spirit, his generosity, his warmhearted sympathy.55

Others more competent must analyze the technical qualities of his art, but we may safely describe him as the chief exemplar of pictorial baroque—sensuous color, incalculable movement, rich imagination, luscious ornament, as against classic placidity and restraint of thought and line. But amid this confusion of beauty, the critics tell us, there is superb draftsmanship. Rubens’ drawings fed a brilliant school of engravers, who made the master’s paintings known to Christian Europe as Raimondi had done with Raphael’s designs. From Rubens’ hand or studio came famous cartoons for the tapestry weavers of Paris and Brussels; they made royal gifts or decoration for Louis XIII, Charles I, and the Archduchess Isabel.

His final decade was one of universal triumph darkened by physical decline. Only Bernini equaled him in artistic fame; in painting no one dreamed of questioning his supremacy. Pupils ran to him from all quarters; commissions came from half a dozen courts, even from Stadholder Frederick Henry across the lines of war. In 1636 Philip IV asked him to paint scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the Pardo hunting lodge; Rubens’ studio produced fifty pictures for the series, of which thirty-one are in the Prado; one of them, The Judgment of Paris, seemed to the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand “the best picture Rubens ever painted.”56 We may prefer the riotous Kermis57 that he painted in 1636—a Brueghel of mad pursuit, in which no woman is so old or ample but some man snatches her.

The self-portrait at sixty58 is the other side of these concluding years: a man still proud, hand on his sword of nobility, but face thinning, skin hanging, crow’s-feet under the eyes—a brave and honest picture. In 1635 gout put him to bed for a month; in 1637 it disabled his hand for a time; in 1639 it prevented him from signing his name; by 1640 both hands were paralyzed. On May 30, 1640, aged sixty-three, he died from arthritis and arteriosclerosis.

It was an astonishing career. He was not the uomo universale of the Renaissance ideal; yet he realized his ambition to play a role in the state as well as the studio. He was not a universal artist, like Leonardo and Michelangelo; he left no sculpture, designed no building except his home. But in painting he reached high excellence in every field. Religious pictures, pagan revels, gods and goddesses, nudity and raiment, kings and queens, children and old men, landscapes and battle scenes all poured from his brush as from a kaleidoscopic cornucopia of color and form. Rubens ended the subjection of Flemish to Italian painting, not by rebellion, but by absorption and union.

He was not as deep as Rembrandt, but wider; he shied away from the dark depths that Rembrandt revealed; he preferred the sun, the open air, the dance of light, the color and zest of life; he repaid his own good fortune by smiling upon the world. His art is the voice of health, as ours today sometimes suggests sickness in the individual or national soul. When our own vitality lags, let us open our Rubens book anywhere and be refreshed.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!