Hooray!!! The migration of this site to a VPS server is complete so I can get back to giving you my daily tale, instead of spending hours on the phone. So . . . today is the birthday (1577) of Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish Baroque painter, and a proponent of an extravagant Baroque style that emphasized movement, color, and sensuality. He is well known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, and paintings of religious, mythological, and allegorical subjects.
Rubens was born in the German city of Siegen, Westphalia to Jan Rubens and Maria Pypelincks. His father, a Calvinist, and his mother fled Antwerp for Cologne in 1568, after increased religious turmoil and persecution of Protestants during the rule of the Spanish Netherlands by the Duke of Alba. Jan Rubens became the legal advisor (and lover) of Anna of Saxony, the second wife of William I of Orange, and settled at her court in Siegen in 1570, fathering her daughter Christine who was born in 1571. Jan Rubens was imprisoned for his affair – sort of a no-brainer don’t you think, Jan? Where was your Calvinism? After he was released, his wife bore Peter Paul in 1577. The family returned to Cologne the next year. In 1589, two years after his father’s death, Rubens moved with his mother Maria Pypelincks to Antwerp, where he was raised as a Catholic.
In Antwerp, Rubens received a humanist education, studying Latin and classical literature. By fourteen he began his artistic apprenticeship with Tobias Verhaeght. Subsequently, he studied under two of the city’s leading painters of the time, the late Mannerist artists Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen. Much of his earliest training involved copying earlier artists’ works, such as woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger and Marcantonio Raimondi’s engravings after Raphael. Rubens completed his education in 1598, at which time he entered the Guild of St. Luke as an independent master.
In 1600, Rubens travelled to Italy. He stopped first in Venice, where he saw paintings by Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto, before settling in Mantua at the court of Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga. The coloring and compositions of Veronese and Tintoretto had an immediate effect on Rubens’s painting, and his later, mature style was profoundly influenced by Titian. With financial support from the Duke, Rubens travelled to Rome by way of Florence in 1601. There, he studied classical Greek and Roman art and copied works of the Italian masters. The Hellenistic sculpture Laocoön and his Sons was especially influential on him, as was the art of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci. He was also influenced by the recent, highly naturalistic paintings by Caravaggio.
Rubens travelled to Spain on a diplomatic mission in 1603, delivering gifts from the Gonzagas to the court of Philip III. While there, he studied the extensive collections of Raphael and Titian that had been amassed by Philip II. He also painted an equestrian portrait of the Duke of Lerma during his stay that demonstrates the influence of works like Titian’s Charles V at Mühlberg. This journey marked the first of many during his career that combined art and diplomacy.
He returned to Italy in 1604, but, upon hearing of his mother’s grave illness in 1608, Rubens planned his departure from Italy for Antwerp. However, she died before he arrived home. His return coincided with a period of renewed prosperity in the city with the signing of Treaty of Antwerp in April 1609, which initiated the Twelve Years’ Truce. In September 1609 Rubens was appointed as court painter by Albert VII, Archduke of Austria and Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain, sovereigns of the Low Countries.
He received special permission to base his studio in Antwerp instead of at their court in Brussels, and to also work for other clients. He remained close to the Archduchess Isabella until her death in 1633, and was called upon not only as a painter but also as an ambassador and diplomat. Rubens further cemented his ties to the city when, on 3 October 1609, he married Isabella Brant, the daughter of a leading Antwerp citizen and humanist, Jan Brant.
In 1610, Rubens moved into a new house and studio that he designed. Now the Rubenshuis Museum, the Italian-influenced villa in the centre of Antwerp accommodated his workshop, where he and his apprentices worked. His most famous pupil was the young Anthony van Dyck, who soon became the leading Flemish portraitist and collaborated frequently with Rubens. He also often collaborated with the many specialists active in the city, including the animal painter Frans Snyders who contributed the eagle to Prometheus Bound, and his good friend the flower-painter Jan Brueghel the Elder.
Rubens used the production of prints and book title-pages, especially for his friend Balthasar Moretus, the owner of the large Plantin-Moretus publishing house, to extend his fame throughout Europe during this part of his career. With the exception of a couple of brilliant etchings, he only produced drawings for these himself, leaving the printmaking to specialists, such as Lucas Vorsterman, Paulus Pontius, and Willem Panneels. He recruited a number of engravers trained by Christoffel Jegher, who he carefully schooled in the more vigorous style he wanted.
In 1621, the Queen Mother of France, Marie de’ Medici, commissioned Rubens to paint two large allegorical cycles celebrating her life and the life of her late husband, Henry IV, for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. The Marie de’ Medici cycle (which are now in the Louvre, and which I and my son have spent hours admiring), was installed in 1625, and although he began work on the second series it was never completed. Marie was exiled from France in 1630 by her son, Louis XIII, and died in 1642 in the same house in Cologne where Rubens had lived as a child.
After the end of the Twelve Years’ Truce in 1621, the Spanish Habsburg rulers entrusted Rubens with a number of diplomatic missions, and in the years that followed he combined art and diplomacy; a combination I must admit that I find intriguing, as did the courtiers of his day. He often encountered the attitude from his colleagues at various European courts that as a “gentleman” he should not be involved in “manual labor.” Nevertheless, he was welcomed by the crowned heads of Europe. Rubens was twice knighted, first by Philip IV of Spain in 1624, and then by Charles I of England in 1630. He was also awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Cambridge University in 1629.
While Rubens’ international reputation with collectors and nobility abroad continued to grow, he and his workshop also continued to paint monumental paintings for local patrons in Antwerp. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary (1625–6) for the Cathedral of Antwerp is one prominent example. Rubens’ last decade was spent in and around Antwerp. Major works for foreign patrons still occupied him, such as the ceiling paintings for the Banqueting House at Inigo Jones’s Palace of Whitehall, but he also explored more personal artistic directions.
In 1630, four years after the death of his first wife, the 53-year-old painter married his niece, the 16-year-old Hélène Fourment. Hélène inspired the voluptuous figures in many of his paintings from the 1630s, including The Feast of Venus, The Three Graces, and The Judgment of Paris. In the latter painting, which was made for the Spanish court, the artist’s young wife was recognized by viewers in the figure of Venus. In an intimate portrait of her, Hélène Fourment in a Fur Wrap, also known as Het Pelsken, Rubens’ wife is partially modeled after classical sculptures of the Venus Pudica, such as the Medici Venus.
Rubens died from heart failure, which was a result of his chronic gout on 30 May 1640. He was interred in Saint Jacob’s church, Antwerp.
When I think of Rubens and his representation of the female figure – usually styled Rubenesque – I have to give you this link. How times change.
The Flemish Baroque was famous for its still life paintings of food (and hunting). Here’s some images for you two are from Rubens himself). I don’t think that is quite right of me to suggest that you bake a swan or grill up a lion steak. But you should think in terms of the wildly exotic and excessive.
I’m going to cheat concerning recipes today (pressed for time). Here’s a great website that features two videos (in French) and a recipe for Flemish hop shoots with poached egg and smoked salmon — suitably exotic, I think. Hop shoots are the newly sprouted shoots of the hop plants that are used in flavoring Belgian beer. When newly in season they fetch upwards of $500 per pound in Antwerp.