Admired for his brilliant colors, sensual forms, luxuriant, painterly brushstrokes woven into elaborate compositions, Rubens invented an idiom that combined the classical grandeur of the Italian High Renaissance, observed first-hand during an extended stay in Italy, with the naturalistic tendencies of the North.
Rubens championed the concept of ‘ut pictura poesis’ and had an unrivaled power to transform classical art and literature into vivid imagery and theatrical drama, drawing on his personal erudition and interest in Antiquity, which he collected and sketched from life. As court painter to the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, Rubens became the standard-bearer of a spiritual renewal for the State and its interconnected courts. His ascendence to international stardom was connected to the diplomatic missions he undertook to France and England. Rubens also became the trending status symbol painter among Antwerp’s higher bourgeois and burgher echelons. He ran a thriving workshop in Antwerp that involved the foremost talents of his time, notably Van Dyck (1599–1641) and Jordaens (1593–1678), and collaborated with other leading specialists such as Jan Breughel (1568–1625) and Frans Snyders (1579–1657) to broaden his reach. Rubens’ artistic offspring in the centuries to follow consist of the old and modern masters of the highest calibre — to name a few, Watteau (1684–1721), Boucher (1703–70), Gainsborough (1727–88), Delacroix (1798–1863), Böcklin (1827–1901), Renoir (1841–1919) Picasso (1881–1973), de Kooning (1904–97) and Freud (1922–2011) — all of whom contributed to his enduring influence in the story of art.
Few paintings are ascribed to Rubens’ early career in Antwerp prior to his transformative journey to Italy between 1600–08, however, his humanist inclination was evident early on. Adam and Eve (before 1600; Antwerp, Rubenshuis), which quotes directly from a Raimondi print after Raphael, shows the influence of Otto van Veen (ca. 1556–1629) with whom he trained. Italy afforded Rubens with the perfect humanistic and artistic education. Between painting aristocratic families in Mantua and Genoa, a few church commissions in Rome and Fermo, and a quick trip to Spain, Rubens used every opportunity to study the great works of renaissance masters and classical sculpture, producing countless drawings as aide memoires. In the decade following his return to Antwerp in 1609, Rubens produced some of his most ambitious religious compositions with a new eloquence learnt from the vivid palette of Titian and Tintoretto, the classicism of Raphael and Michelangelo and the nascent Baroque expressionism of Correggio. Led by the linen merchant Cornelis van der Geest and burgomaster Nicholaas Rockox, who respectively funded the Raising of the Cross (ca. 1610–11) and Descent from the Cross (1611–14) both in the Antwerp Cathedral today, many of Rubens’ early commissions were financed by the city’s foremost patrician merchants and officials who also privately owned his works. Notably, the Battle of the Amazons (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) which was a star in Van der Geest’s collection and Samson and Delilah (ca. 1609; National Gallery, London) which hung above the fireplace in a central position in the Rockox house, as recorded in Frans Francken’s celebrated kunstkamer painting.
In the meantime, Rubens secured prestigious commissions abroad, counting among them some of his most astounding theatrical masterpieces such as the six-meter-tall Great Last Judgement of 1617 commissioned by Duke Wolfgang Wilhelm of Pfalz-Neuburg for the Jesuit church in Neuburg an der Donau and The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt (1615) for the residence of the Elector of Bavaria Maximilian I (1573–1651). Rubens became a confidante of Isabella after the death of Archduke Albert in 1621 and was increasingly involved with diplomatic duties. His exalted stature was marked by the Medici Cycle (1622–25) executed for the French Queen Marie de Medici and between 1629–30 a number of commissions undertaken for King Charles I in England, an avid art collector who conferred a knighthood upon Rubens in addition to delivering a peace deal. In the last decade of his life, Rubens’ most important patron was King Philip IV of Spain who commissioned over 80 paintings largely executed by his workshop. His late style was much indebted to Titian, whose paintings in the Escorial and the Prado he had studied and copied during an earlier visit. After 1635 Rubens retired with his new wife and young children in their newly acquired country estate of Steen where he painted numerous landscapes, portraits and other works. Particularly moving are his landscapes celebrating pastoral life and portraits of friends and family members, such as Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment and Their Son Frans (ca. 1635; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) which recalls the symbolism and gestures in his earlier marriage portrait to Isabella Brandt in the Honeysuckle Bower (1609-10; Alte Pinakothek, Munich).
Rubens made extensive use of preparatory sketches in oil with varying degree of finish — an innovation among Northern artists and a cornerstone of his ambitious workshop practice launched immediately after his return to Flanders. Prized for their immediacy and consummate pictorial flair, Rubens’ oil sketches show considerably more clarity and bravura than the precedents in sixteenth century Italy and a triumph of colore over disegno. After his trip to Italy, Rubens broke with his earlier practice of sketching on large-scale canvas, switching instead to paint on small-scale panels. Since he entrusted the execution of almost all large-scale public commissions and many private paintings to his large staff of painters who were guided by these blueprints, they offer the best insight into the masters’ mind. It is not uncommon that collectors owned both the final work and the sketches, such as the various elaborate sketches of Mars and Rhea Silvia and the completed work in the Princely Collections of Liechtenstein. Rubens’ use of live models was exemplary. Head studies, such as the keenly observed moor in Four Studies of a Head of a Moor (ca. 1614-16; Royal Museums of Fine Art, Brussels) reappears in the Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1624-26) now in the same museum. Some sketches were intended for tapestry or prints, such as the eight modelli for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry which was owned by marquis de Carpio, among the greatest Spanish collectors of the seventeenth century. The tenebristic Lamentation over the Dead Christ (ca. 1610; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) is a finished sketch which has a spiritual intensity evocative of Fuseli’s (1741–1825) Nightmare. From the dashed-off bozzetti to the fully developed modelli, these works have been widely sought after ever since they were painted. Hailed as a precursor to modernity, they featured in the Met Breuer’s seminal Unfinished exhibition as well as Gagosian Gallery’s prescient Peter Paul Ruben: Oil Paintings and Oil Sketches exhibition in 1995.
The term ‘Rubenesque’ is included the Oxford English Dictionary to mean a ‘voluptuous female nude’, but in fact Rubens excelled in many other genres besides that of the figurative. His feathery landscapes, largely produced after retreating to the Brabant countryside late in life, paved the way for the blossoming of English landscape painting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Famously Gainsborough dedicated a landscape to Rubens after seeing the old master’s Watering Place in London in 1768 and Constable’s iconic Hay Wain reveals much of the atmospheric poetry of nature seen in Rubens’ landscapes which were collected by his patron Sir George Beaumont. Indeed a great many of Rubens’ landscape paintings entered English collections in the nineteenth century, including An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (National Gallery, London) and The Rainbow Landscape (Wallace Collection, London). Rubens’ flamboyant depiction of big cats and exotic animals as assembled in Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt (ca. 1616; musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes), among many of his works, influenced Delacroix, in whose orientalist fascination with color and conflict he saw a continuation of Rubens’ ferocious imagination and elán.
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Books on Peter Paul Rubens
Friso Lammertse and Alejandro Vergara, Rubens: Painter of Sketches, exh. cat., Madrid and Rotterdam, 2018.
Gelinde Gruber, Sabine Haag, Stefan Weppelmann and Jochen Sander eds., Rubens: The Power of Transformation, exh. cat., Munich, 2017.
Tim J. Barringer, Rubens and His Legacy, exh. cat, London, 2014.
Peter C. Sutton, The Age of Rubens, exh. cat., New York, 1993.
Peter C. Sutton, Marjorie E. Wieseman and Nico van Hout, eds., Drawn by the Brush, Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, exh. cat., New Haven, 2004.
Cornelis de Bie, Het Gulden Cabinet vande Edel Vry Schilder-Const, 1662, reprint, Antwerp, 1971.