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Sir Peter Paul Rubens. His son Nikolas. Modified drawing. Ca. 1619
The artist's son Nikolas, ca. 1619.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was one of the foremost painters in Western art history. Some of his paintings can be accessed below. - TK

On Rubens

Rubens was born in Westphalia and died in Antwerp. He was a master of portrayal, nay, the greatest exponent of Baroque painting's dynamism, vitality, and sensuous exuberance. And he had the greatest painter's studio in Europe in his time.

After his father died in 1587, young Peter Paul was raised in his mother's Roman Catholic faith and got a classical education. His artistic training began in 1591. Next year he moved on to the studio of Adam van Noort, and four years later he became an apprentice to Antwerp's leading artist, Otto van Veen, who made Rubens think of painting as a lofty humanistic profession.

His firm belief may have been that a painter's business was to paint the world around him; to paint what he liked, to make us feel that he enjoyed beauty of things, says Gombrich. Most of Rubens' youthful works have disappeared or remain unidentified. By August 1601 he had travelled throughout Italy, sketchbook in hand, before he arrived in Rome.

Rubens soon assimilated the Baroque style. Toward the end of 1605 he began to amass a considerable collection of Roman sculpture, reliefs, portrait busts, and ancient coins.

In October 1608 Rubens went home to Antwerp when he was thirty-one. He had caught a grand sweep in Italy, and had no rival north of the Alps. He had great organising ability and charm, and was confident that his brushwork could impart life to anything, that is, make anythings seem alive through bold and delicate touches. He rose to become very famous and influential. In 1610 he bought a splendid townhouse and added a studio and and garden pavilion to it.

Between 1610 to 1620 Rubens produced altar pieces and many paintings on secular themes—mythological, historical, and allegorical subjects, hunting scenes, and portraits. Among the finest of his mythological paintings is the "Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus" (c. 1617–18).

Rubens could produce much due to his large studio of assistants, apprentices, collaborators, and engravers. His most talented assistant was the young Anthony Van Dyck. In 1620 Rubens contracted to design 39 ceiling paintings for the Jesuit church, to be executed by Van Dyck and other assistants after his oil sketches. The paintings justified Rubens' claim to be "by natural instinct, better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities."

In 1621 Rubens was engaged as a confidential agent in Spain's diplomatic search for peace between Habsburg-controlled Flanders and the independent Dutch Republic to the north. By this time the "the painter of princes and the prince of painters" could travel freely among royal courts for discreet discussions with some of those who were sitting for portraits by him.

His largest commision was for a series of 21 paintings for the Palais Luxembourg in Paris. He got 20 000 ducats for the series.

In 1626 Rubens' wife Isabella died. Two years later he found time to tune into masterpieces by Venetian Titian - the brushwork, colours, and bright modeling. And it is to him personally that the peace treaty of 1630 between England and Spain can be attributed. The admiring English King Charles awarded Rubens a long-coveted commission to decorate the ceiling of the royal Banqueting House. And on the eve of his departure from England, Rubens was knighted by King Charles.

Back in Antwerp Rubens, in 1630, he married the 16-year-old Helena Fourment. Their marriage was fruitful and blissful. They had five children. In 1631 Philip IV knighted Rubens too. Now Rubens retired from his diplomatic career.

At his country estate, bought in 1635, Rubens made paintings with shimmering colour and light of landscapes. Despite rheumatism Rubens continued. When he painted his "Self-Portrait with Helena and Peter Paul" death was not far away. He died in May 1640.

Master of the greatest studio organization since that of Raphael, he was also a scholar and humanist, even an amateur architect, filled with liberty and boldness. The devoted husband and the father of eight children meant "colour is over line". He said, "My talent is such that no undertaking, however large and varied in theme, has ever gone beyond my self-confidence."

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Rubens, Peter Paul  

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. London: Encyclopaedia Britannica. Yearly DVD Suite.

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