Rubens is the creator of biblical and mythological representations, landscapes, hunting scenes, portraits, designs for sculptures, title pages and tapestries. But what sets him apart from most artists is that he has excellent observation skills, a keen sense of understanding and knows how to adopt techniques incorporating them in a creative manner. What he paints, he paints better than any other specialist. And that is precisely what makes him so unique. Then and now. Rubens was keen to learn, an avid book collector who knew scholars all over Europe, an amateur scientist with a huge appetite. He was an intelligent researcher who never stopped experimenting throughout his distinguished career. An overview:
A close call
In 1568, Peter Paul Rubens's father, Jan, left his native city of Antwerp. As a Protestant he was no longer safe in the Catholic Netherlands. Jan, his wife Maria Pypelinkcx and their four children moved to Cologne. There Jan embarked on an affair with Princess Anna of Saxony, William of Orange's second wife. He was almost sentenced to death for this extramarital affair but the extraordinary generosity of his wife Maria, who stood by her husband in spite of everything, probably saved his life. We owe her a lot for this. If Jan had died at the time, Peter Paul Rubens would have never existed. In fact he was not even born at the time.
German beginnings, an Antwerp sequel
After spending two years in prison, Jan Rubens was released in 1573 but placed under house arrest. On 28 June 1577, Peter Paul Rubens was born in Siegen, as the sixth of seven children. Jan Rubens died in March 1587 in Cologne. His wife Maria returned to Antwerp in 1589 with their three children: Blandina, Filips and Pieter Paul. Their eldest son Jan probably left to Italy. The other three children died.
In Antwerp Peter Paul was briefly sent to Latin grammar school. Here he was instructed in the principles of humanism (a Renaissance movement which believed in a more "humane" form of Christianity, which focused less on God). He subsequently entered the household of the Countess the Ligne as a page. Here he learnt more about the manners of the international nobility and honed his language skills.
Museum Plantin-Moretus owns a sketchbook of the young Rubens, with a number of exceptional pen drawings of Hans Holbein's "Dance of Death". Death, embodied here by a grinning skeleton, literally frightens unsuspecting mortals to death in a series of evocative sketches. Rubens probably created the series around 1590. He was 12 or 13 years old. This is his oldest known work.
Versatile and multi-talented
Rubens's contemporaries held him in high esteem. "Charming, engaging, good manners, hugely intelligent, excellent organisational skills and languages: Dutch, Latin, Italian, Spanish, German and French". An ideal preparation for a political or diplomatic career. But Rubens chose to become a history painter instead, painting scenes from the Bible, classical Antiquity and mythology. History painters must understand the rules of composition and perspective as well as the story and the morals of what they are painting. They are also considered to be more important than a portrait or landscape painter.
In those days, painters learned their trade by working hard in a master's studio: grinding the pigment and mixing paint, mounting canvas on a wooden frame, cleaning the master's palettes and brushes... while paying very good attention to and observing the master. Rubens had three teachers in all. The most important of the three is the Antwerper Otto van Veen. He studied Romance languages, was a member of a group of painters who trained in Italy and a great fan of the Renaissance.
The secrets of symbols
History painters often used allegories (a person or an animal is used to represent an abstract concept) and symbols, as a way of providing a "discreet" commentary. The "hare" for example epitomised alertness, while the "cat" symbolised freedom, etc. Otto van Veen was known for his knowledge of symbols. Nowadays symbols are no longer very fashionable but in the sixteenth century art was replete with them. You can read this type of painting like a book. If you know what the symbols mean. Under Van Veen's influence, Rubens became a master of symbolism.
Van Veen shared his knowledge and experience with Rubens but also introduced him in intellectual circles. He met Nicolaas Rockox, the Antwerp mayor, art collector and future patron of Rubens, for example. In 1598 Rubens was inducted in St. Luke's Guild as a master at the age of 21 years. The guild was the Antwerp association of artists and craftsmen.
The Italian period
From the sixteenth century onwards Italy proved very attractive for artists. In 1600 Rubens left for Italy. He would live there for eight years. He studied treasures from classical Antiquity and contemporary Italian art. His stay in the peninsula would leave an indelible mark on his artistic output. We can think of no other artist who familiarised himself to such an extent with the classical tradition and legacy of his Italian predecessors. Rubens's paintings are brimming with antique buildings and statues. The influence of the antique sculpture is clear in the attitude of his figures.
Italy in the Rubens House
The Rubens House has one of Rubens's drawings, which was almost certainly painted in Italy. "Head of an elderly man" is a drawing in red chalk of an older man. It is probably an anatomical study. The Rubens House also owns a painting from Rubens's Italian period, namely "Saint Sebastian". He probably also painted "The Conversion of Saint Paul" in Italy but we cannot be certain of this. Rubens's stay in Italy was hugely successful, something which the archdukes of the Southern Netherlands, Albert and Isabella were quick to notice.
Back to Antwerp
In 1608 Rubens learned that his mother was gravely ill. By the time he returned to Antwerp, Maria had already died. Albert and Isabella were interested in employing Rubens and keeping him in the Low Countries. But Rubens was hesitant: "I would be satisfied with Antwerp and its citizens if only I could bid farewell to Rome", he wrote in a letter.
In love, marriage
Isabella Brant, however, changed things. Rubens fell in love with the daughter of his neighbours in Antwerp's Kloosterstraat, where his parents used to live. In September 1609, Rubens was appointed as painter to the court of Albert and Isabella. He had a girlfriend, a job and wages, so he could get married. On 3 October 1609, he married Isabella Brant, the daughter of an important city official, Jan Brant.
An important commission, happiness and sorrow
In 1610, Rubens painted "The Raising of the Cross", one of his first large commissions after his return to the city, for St. Walpurga's Church. In 1611, Peter Paul and Isabella had their first child, Clara Serena. But their happiness was also offset by sorrow that year when Peter Paul's beloved brother Filips died.
In autumn of that same year, he was given the commission for painting a triptych for the guild's altar in the Cathedral of Our Lady. He painted "The Raising of the Cross". In 1614 and 1618 respectively, the Rubens family welcomed two sons: Albert and Nicolaas. In 1618, he was also involved in the design and decoration of Antwerp's Jesuit church, the present-day church of St. Charles Borromeo. He painted 39 ceiling paintings for this church, together with Anthony van Dyck. Unfortunately these were destroyed in a fire in 1718.
Superstar with a Rubens House
Rubens became the most sought out painter of Europe. Kings and princesses, statesmen and diplomats... They all wanted a painting by this popular artist. Rubens decided he needed more space for his family and work. He purchased a house and land in Wapper, near Meir in Antwerp. Then and now it was a pleasant neighbourhood to live in. Over the years, he had the existing sixteenth-century house renovated and expanded into an Italianate palazzetto, a small city palace. At the time, such a large artist's house, with separate living quarters and a studio, which also served as a museum, was unheard of in the Low Countries. Today this city palace is known to us as the Rubens House.
Dark times: farewell to Clara Serena and Isabella
But there was more to Rubens's life than fortune and glory. On the contrary, these were sad times for Peter Paul. In 1623, his daughter Clara Serena died, the sweet girl with the twinkling eyes and blushing round cheeks, whose portrait he had lovingly painted a few years earlier. Rubens was despondent after this, as he loved all his children dearly.
His beloved wife Isabella died three years later, probably from the plague. She was thirty-four years old. This marked the end of their harmonious marriage. Rubens was inconsolable. "I hope that time will give to me what reason should because I am under no impression that I will ever achieve stoic equanimity... I have lost an excellent life partner who should be, nay was rightfully loved", he wrote to a friend.
On the diplomatic beat
Rubens did much more than just supply magnificent art works to Albert and Isabella. He was eloquent, intelligent, a man of the world. After the Archduke Albert died, he became Isabella's counsellor. From 1625 until 1628 he travelled around Europe to broker a peace treaty between Spain and the Netherlands. A treaty between these two countries could possibly also put an end to the hostilities between the Northern and the Southern Netherlands. Besides several prestigious commissions, Rubens also was knighted on two occasions.
In 1630, Rubens returned to Antwerp, with amorous intentions. His second wife and muse was Helena Fourment. At the time of their marriage, on 4 December 1630, Helena was just sixteen, the same age as Rubens's eldest son, Albert. Friends had insisted that he take "a wife from a noble family", but Rubens preferred "a young wife from a decent bourgeois family... who will not blush when I pick up my brushes". They had a happy marriage, which was blessed with five children: Clara (b. 1632), Frans (b. 1633) Isabella (b. 1635, her name was a tribute to his first wife), Peter Paul the Younger (b. 1637) and Constantia (b. 1641). After his marriage, Rubens in any event complained less frequently about ailments and despondence in his correspondence.
But he did have ailments: since 1623 Rubens regularly suffered from bouts of gout. From the thirties onwards, Rubens largely withdrew from diplomacy. But he continued to be a member of the European jet set and still accepted large commissions. In 1635, he purchased a country estate near Elewijt, called Het Steen. That year he completed his largest commission ever: the decoration of the Royal Hunting Lodge Torre de la Parada in Madrid. Jacob Jordaens was one of the many assistants for this huge undertaking.
From the end of the thirties onwards, Rubens's health steadily declined. He was forced to stop practicing his dolcissima professione, his excellent profession. On 27 May 1640, he drew up his last will and testament and he died on 30 May in his home. He was just a month short of his 63rd birthday. On 9 May 1640, he wrote one of his last known letters. He congratulated a young friend on his marriage. "My wife and I... wish you and your beloved wife all possible happiness and perfection in a long marriage... you are always welcome to visit us." These are the words of an affable man, rather than of a great artist. But possibly one does not exclude the other.
On 2 June 1640, the city and its population bade farewell to the master with the utmost respect. Alfred Michiels describes the funeral in Histoire de l’école: "The clergy of St. James Church (his parish church) walked in front of the bier, as well as the church's chaplains. They were followed by the mendicant orders in their earnest and picturesque habits. To the left and the right of the bier were sixty orphans, each walking with a burning candle in their hand. Behind the coffin was the family of the famous man, the magistrates, the academy of painters, many noblemen, merchants and affluent citizens. The population lined the streets that they passed through".
Rubens and his family are buried in a chapel in Antwerp's St. James's Church.