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Peter Paul Rubens: renowned 17th-century Flemish Baroque painter

“My talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size…has ever surpassed my courage.” 

As one of the most prolific northern European artists of 17th century, Peter Paul Rubens played an important role in Western art history. Combining the realistic tradition of Flemish painting with the imaginative freedom and classical themes of Italian Renaissance painting, he gave new life to northern European painting. He synthesized Renaissance and early Baroque styles and created the first truly “Europeanstyle of painting.

Peter Rubens was born in Siegen, German province of Westphalia, on June 28, 1577. His father, an ardently Calvinist Antwerp lawyer, fled in 1568 to Germany to escape religious persecution, but after his death (1587) the family moved back to Antwerp, where Peter Paul was raised as a Roman Catholic. Religion had a great influence on his work. That’s why Rubens later became one of the leading voices of the Catholic Counter-Reformation style of painting. He is well-known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, history paintings of mythological and allegorical subjects, portraits and landscapes. In Antwerp, Rubens received a humanist education, studying Latin and classical literature. By fourteen he began his artistic apprenticeship. Peter Rubens completed his education in 1598.

During his career, Rubens spent several periods living in Italy, which enabled him to acquire a solid classical culture. In 1600 he stopped in Venice. Inspired by his passionate admiration of the Venetian master Titian, Rubens explored the possibilities of a softer, modulated line and chiaroscuro, using chalks in three different colors. The coloring and compositions of this artist had an immediate effect on Rubens’s painting, and his later, mature style was profoundly influenced by Titian. Rubens studied classical Greek and Roman art and copied works of the Italian masters; the Hellenistic sculpture Laocoon and his Sons was especially influential on him, as was the art of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci. During this first stay in Rome, Rubens completed his first widely acknowledged altarpiece commission, St. Helena with the True Cross for the Roman church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

Peter Rubens was not only a successful painter, but he also played an important diplomatic role in 17th-century European politics. 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. In 1604 he returned to Italy, where he remained for the next four years, first in Mantua and then in Genoa and Rome. In Genoa, Rubens painted numerous portraits, such as the Marchesa Brigida Spinola-Doria (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and the portrait of Maria di Antonio Serra Pallavicini.

In 1608 Rubens returned to Antwerp because of his mother’s death. In September of that year Rubens was appointed as court painter by Albert VII, Archduke of Austria and Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain. 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. On 3 October 1609, he married Isabella Brant, and a year later he purchased a house in Antwerp. The charming painting Rubens and His Wife in the Honeysuckle Arbor was painted about this time.

When his first wife died probably of plague, in order to distract himself, Rubens threw himself into his diplomatic work. He spent several months in England where he carried out several commissions for Charles I who was a passionate collector of art. Charles I knighted the artist-diplomat, and the University of Cambridge awarded him an honorary master of arts degree. After 18 months abroad, Rubens returned to Antwerp and dedicated himself entirely to painting. One of his most important patrons in the 1630s was King Philip IV of Spain who commissioned over 80 paintings. In 1630, at the age of 53, Rubens married 16-year-old Hélène Fourment. Hélène inspired the voluptuous figures in many of his paintings from the 1630s, including The Feast of Venus (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), The Three Graces (Prado, Madrid) and The Judgment of Paris (Prado, Madrid). Landscapes, such as his Château de Steen with Hunter (National Gallery, London) and Farmers Returning from the Fields (Pitti Gallery, Florence), reflect the more personal nature of many of his later works.

During his last years Rubens spent increasing amounts of time with his new young family in his country house, the Chateau de Steen. He began to paint more landscapes, often for his own enjoyment, rather than for sale. There is no doubt that his style of painting with its rich texture, vivid color, and lively movement has influenced baroque painters throughout Europe. Rubens died from gout on 30 May 1640. He was interred in Saint Jacob’s church, Antwerp.

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