Peter Paul Rubens Overview
born: 1577 A.C.
born in: Siegen, Westphalia
died: 1640 A.C.
What would the Baroque have been without Rubens? This dynamo of artistic energy infiltrated all the great courts of Europe, spreading the lush, riotous, regal style that had formed in the wake of the Renaissance. His sprawling canvases depict life on... [more]
What would the Baroque have been without Rubens? This dynamo of artistic energy infiltrated all the great courts of Europe, spreading the lush, riotous, regal style that had formed in the wake of the Renaissance. His sprawling canvases depict life on an epic scale, as if he needed extra room to include the huge, rippling bodies of his subjects, the foot soldiers and the nobility, philosophers and saints, plump cherubs and pagan goddesses. In Rubens' paintings the tensions of the seventeenth century hang in shimmering suspense: flesh and spirit, science and religion, Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Rubens's roots were in the Netherlands, where these tensions were openly at war; throughout his life the Protestant Dutch fought the Catholic, Habsburg-backed Flemings for sovereignty. First baptized into the Calvinist faith by his father, at ten Rubens was rebaptized Catholic by his mother, who moved the boy to Antwerp after his father's death. In this Catholic stronghold and prospering port, he learned painting from the local masters, before setting out for Italy in the year 1600. In addition to filling his sketchbook with images from Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Carracci, and Caravaggio, Rubens formed crucial social connections while in southern Europe. Soon he was hobnobbing with Marie de Medici, the new queen of France, and visiting the Spanish court on diplomatic missions. His painting extended from Church commissions in Rome -- large-scale images of saints and heavenly ascents -- to portraits of Spanish nobility on horseback. In 1608 Rubens returned to Antwerp, where he became court painter to the Habsburg regents and a premier artist of the Counter-Reformation. His workshop had tax-exempt status because of his royal patronage; it became a factory of art, teeming with assistants who filled in the brushwork on Rubens' sketches or created engravings based on his paintings -- images which then could be sold in mass quantities. While Rubens' religious art expressed the exalted spirituality of the Catholic Church, it was marked the same overwhelming physicality that characterized his secular work. The massive bodies of his saints, the hosts of corpulent cherubs, seem to express the concrete and immovable institution of the Church. In his secular paintings, Rubens explored themes from ancient history and myth, depicting scenes like "The Death of Seneca" (1615) and "The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus" (1618). In the latter work, a fabulous whirl of horses, women, and marauding men occupies the center of the canvas; it's a virtuoso display of paint's ability to capture movement, texture, and emotion. The naked female forms catch the eye with their translucent, white skin. Like many of his Venuses, nereids, and nymphs, these hefty blond women, with their plush rolls of flesh, present a version of female beauty that can only be called Rubenesque. It is a vision that sees in the excess of the body its tension, its struggle, with the soul. Rubens' abundant, sensual figures are pulled in two directions: downwards by the weight of the flesh and its pagan pleasures, and upwards by the redemptive pull of spiritual ecstasy. When commissioned in 1622 by Marie de Medici, now the widow of Henry IV, to create a series of paintings based on her life, Rubens merged classical references with recent events to create a heroic vision of the queen. Both pagan demigods and angelic hosts celebrate her majestic reign. A similar type of iconography pervades Rubens' painting for the ceiling of the royal Banqueting House at Whitehall. He received this commission after the chief success of his diplomatic career -- a treaty between England and Spain, intended to lay the groundwork for peace in the Netherlands. No matter what royal court he worked for, Rubens deployed his special blend of flesh and spirit, of pagan and Christian virtues, to achieve a grandiose, masculine Baroque. Without him, we would be left with a more controlled and delicate eruption; we would be left with Bernini. [show less]