Born on June 28, 1577, Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens was one of the most celebrated and prolific artists in Europe during his lifetime as well as the entire Baroque era. His patrons included royalty and churches, and his art depicted subjects from religion, history, and mythology. Rubens delighted in undertakings of the vastest kind. “The large size of a picture”, he writes to W. Trumbull in 1621, “gives us painters more courage to represent our ideas with the utmost freedom and semblance of reality… I confess myself to be, by a natural instinct, better fitted to execute works of the largest size.” Aside from being the one of the greatest artists of his time, Peter Paul Rubens was also a diplomat in his later life, and travelled a fair bit by virtue of this role. He was well suited to diplomacy because he was very good at dealing with people. Even though he was the most prolific painter in Europe at the time, he was able to keep up because of his boundless energy and great organizational skills. He woke up early to go to mass, and worked until late at night. He hired assistants to help him. The positions as Rubens’ assistants were very sought after by other painters, the most renowned of whom was Anthony van Dyck . Rubens died of gout in 1640 at age 62. The paintings of Rubens are found in all the principal galleries in Europe: Antwerp and Brussels, Madrid, Paris, Lille, Dresden, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, St. Petersburg, London, Florence, Milan, Turin exhibit several hundreds of his works. J. Smith’s Catalogue gives descriptions of more than thirteen hundred compositions.
In his early years, Rubens received an exceptional education, experience as a page in a noble house, and training in the studios of three Antwerp painters, most importantly that of Otto van Veen, who probably encouraged Rubens’s trip to Italy in 1600. Here he absorbed profound impressions from classical sculpture and the works of Italian artists such as Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Correggio, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and Annibale Carracci. Rubens remained in Italy for eight years, supported by commissions from the duke of Mantua, Genoese nobility, and great Roman patrons, including major orders of the Catholic church.
Immediately after his return from Italy, Rubens painted the altarpiece for the scholar’s Congregation of the Antwerp Jesuit College. Rubens designed the proclamation as a night scene, and increases the elementary collapse of the Angel Gabriel in the earthly sphere through the guided use of light and shadow and the passionate movements into dramatic. The Ceremony for the presentation message in the form of a subtle dialogue between Mary and the angel, he visualizes means of eloquent gestures and facial expressions. The liquid brush stroke and the hot iridescent colors of the angel, which is contrasted with the coolness of the canonical simple blue-and-white Mary, is reminiscent of Venetian painting, while the high-contrast lighting is modeled on the example of Caravaggio.
Rubens’s practice of using real people as models for figures in his religious and mythological scenes was followed closely in Antwerp by his younger colleagues Jacob Jordaens and Anthony van Dyck. Rubens returned home to Antwerp in 1608 after the death of his mother. There he married Isabella Brant in 1609 and established his own studio with a staff of assistants. He was appointed court painter to Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, who governed the Southern Netherlands on behalf of Spain. In a time of social and economic recovery after war, Antwerp’s affluent merchants were building their private art collections and local churches were being refurbished with new art. 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. 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 made most of the paintings, and his personal art collection and library, both among the most extensive in Antwerp. During this time he built up a studio with numerous students and assistants. This study was in keeping with Rubens’s efficient and rapid method of work.
The theme known as the ‘Lamentation Over the Dead Christ’ does not appear in any of the New Testament gospels. In fact it only emerged as a devotional image during the 11th century. Other famous Lamentations include those by Giotto (Scrovegni Chapel, Padua), Botticelli (Munich), Annibale Carracci (National Gallery, London) and Rubens (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Most Lamentations focus on the passionate grief being expressed by the mourners. Lamentations did not appear in art north of the Alps until the 14th century, but then became very popular there, and northern versions further developed the centrality of Mary to the composition. The typical position of Christ’s body changes from being flat on the ground or slab, usually seen in profile across the center of the work, to the upper torso being raised by Mary or others, and finally being held in a near-vertical position, seen frontally, or across Mary’s lap.
The Assumption of the Virgin was one of the most frequently depicted subjects by Rubens for altarpieces. The subject of the Assumption of the Virgin comes from the various early church fables collected by Jacobus de Voragine in his Golden Legend of 1260. According to the Apocrypha and Jacob of Voragine’s “Golden Legend”, the Apostles assembled at the Virgin’s empty tomb and witnessed her Assumption. The Antwerp cathedral opened a competition for an Assumption altar in 1611. Rubens submitted models to the clergy on 16 February 1618. It is likely that the painting of The Assumption of the Virgin in Vienna, which reproduces the bottom half of the Hermitage composition, and which comes from the Lady Chapel of the Jesuit Church in Antwerp, was originally intended for the High Altar of the Antwerp Cathedral. Blue is the keynote color here, suggestive of a luminous sky and symbolic of heaven. The Virgin wears white to symbolize purity; she is usually shown wearing a blue cloak alluding to her status as Queen of Heaven. It is this symbolic blue that has somehow permeated every centimeter of this panel. Twelve Apostles witness the same event and yet Rubens finds twelve different postures and emotions for them to adopt. The tangle of baby angels teases (literally amazes) the eye like a knot – as, in a different way, do the innumerable angel heads merging with clouds.
It has been stated that Rubens, a man who was endowed with a rare joie de vivre and had a healthy, dynamic, positivistic approach to life, was not and could not be responsive to contemplative mysticism. Thus, by instinct, one might say, he was attracted to the Jesuits, the activists among Counter Reformation Orders, and he liked working for them. Among his greatest works are the 39 panels for the Antwerp Jesuit church (destroyed by fire in I8I8) and the two enormous altarpieces for the same church, painted before I620, which were saved and are now in the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna. They depict the miracles of St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier in a vigorous Baroque style; and it is, of course, these paintings which come to mind when Rubens’s relation to the Jesuits is mentioned. Rubens felt himself close to the Jesuits. In 1617 the Jesuits in Antwerp commissioned Rubens to execute a monumental altarpiece promoting the miracles performed by missionary Saint Francis Xavier (1506–1552) in Goa (in present-day India). This monumental painting was displayed alternately with The Miracles of St. Ignatius of Loyola on the high altar of Antwerp’s Jesuit Church. Saint Francis Xavier stands preaching to a crowd of people. Some of the miracles he performed as part of his missionary activity in Asia are vividly depicted, both as a testimony to the Counter-Reformation and as preparation for the beatification of St. Francis Xavier in 1619. A man is summoned back from the dead, the blind and lame are healed, and in the temple an idol is falling, broken, to the ground. These two paintings are among the finest of the ecclesiastical works from the period after the establishment of his workshop in Antwerp, which fairly overwhelm the observer by their huge scale, richness of color, and depth of feeling.
Theodosius and Saint Ambrose is a 1616 painting by Peter Paul Rubens, with assistance from his main pupil Anthony van Dyck. Rubens created the preparatory drawing, with the painting almost entirely done by van Dyck, who painted his own similar version of the subject a few years later. In the Rubens version, the architectural background is less defined, Theodosius is bearded and the spear and halberd in van Dyck’s own version are omitted. It shows the Roman emperor Theodosius I and his entourage being barred from Milan Cathedral by its archbishop Saint Ambrose, as punishment for the Massacre of Thessalonica.
Rubens based this picture on a tale in Boccaccio’s Decameron (5:1). Written in the early fourteenth century, the author reflects on the tradition of villa-life which advocated the country retreat as the most favorable setting for poetry. Cimon, a handsome but coarse and uneducated youth, fell in love with Iphigenia (or Efigenia) and married her. The effects of love were beneficial and turned him into an educated and graceful man. This painting has evidence of collaboration by at least two artists in Rubens’s studio, Frans Snijders and Jan Wildens, a landscape painter. In a sketch for Cimon and Efigenia, Rubens left the left-hand side of the foreground blank and relied upon Snijders for the design and execution of the still life (the fruit, birds and monkey) while Wildens did the landscape background. For the sleeping figures, Rubens certainly could have been inspired by the celebrated Sleeping Ariadne sculpture from the fountain setting at the Villa Belvedere, in Rome. The Cleopatra, as it was then known, was set upon a Roman sarcophagus and fitted as a fountain in a niche at one end of the uppermost terrace of the Cortile del Belvidere. He undoubtedly knew this sculpture well in order to have incorporated it so effectively in the two sleeping figures. Efigenia is given the body and legs of the Belvedere marble while her attendant on the left takes on the arrangements and pose of its arms.
According to the conventional interpretation, the four continents are depicted here as female allegoric figures are paired with the gods of their respective rivers. Slightly elevated above the others, Europe is sitting on the left, accompanied by the river god of the Danube, and facing Asia on the right with the Ganges. At the back is America with the god of the Rio de la Plata. The Nile has his arm around the black beauty Africa. A new interpretation, however, sees the river figures as an allegory for the four great rivers of the ancient East, or the four rivers of paradise.
The veneration of the Christ child and the idyllic character of the scene made it easier for the faithful to access the complex story of salvation. A story taken from the wealth of Christian legends supplied the basis for this depiction of John the Baptist and his parents visiting the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. Despite the religious connection, Rubens developed the position of Jesus and St. John from his occupation with antique sculptures, which also served as a model for his painting “The Four Rivers of Paradise”.
The Head of Medusa is one of the most famous and recognizable images of Rubens. The canvas of the Head of Medusa from the Kunsthistorisches Museum is perhaps the earliest original treatment of a rare subject in 16th – 17th century Western European art. Against the background of a gloomy landscape with low clouds we see the brightly illuminated head of Medusa lying on a stony ledge almost devoid of vegetation. Her deathly pale face with frozen gaze, glassy eyes and half-open mouth are filled with an expression of horror. Although Medusa is dead, her repulsive snakelike hair continues to live: it stirs, twists, shakes, intertwine, forming moving rings and balls. The drops of blood which have fallen to the ground give rise to newborn small snakes. The insects and crawling animals on the painting are united in the composition obviously because from time immemorial they arouse fear and repulsion in men.
Saint Jerome’s taking of the sacrament of the Eucharist at his last rites had become a favorite subject in painting among artists by Rubens’s’ time. Saint Jerome (347-420) has been a popular subject with artists, who have pictured him in the desert, as a scholar in his study, and sometimes in the robes of a cardinal, because of his services for Pope Damasus. One of the four Great Fathers of the Latin Church, St. Jerome was entrusted by Pope Damasus I in the 4th century to translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into Latin. This resulted in the version known as the Vulgate. The Eucharist cycle was Rubens’ s largest and most complex tapestry cycle, commissioned around 1625 by the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia. It is an example of the Counter- Reformation art of the Baroque used to uphold the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Rubens created at least eleven (and possibly sixteen) compositions on the subject of the Eucharist for the cycle. They were conceived as an unified panorama through the double illusion of fictive tapestries hung within an architectural setting; tapestries within tapestries. Rubens followed his usual practice of first producing bozzetti (oil sketches) of each subject, followed by modelli (models), and finally, full-scale painted cartoons, which rarely show any significant departure from the final work, in this instance, the tapestries. The cycle’s eleven key paintings illustrate a religious epic comprising four Old Testament prefigurations, two allegorical victories of the sacrament over paganism and heresy, two groups of evangelists and saints announcing and defending the Eucharist, and three triumphal processions of Faith, Divine Love, and the Church. I believe this portrait was performed as a study for these tapestries. The study for a head depicts St. Jerome in red vestments and a cardinal’s hat.
Despite their great poverty, only Philimon and Baucis offered hospitality to Jupiter and Mercury, who were wandering unrecognized on the Earth (Ovid,Metamorphosis). As Baucis attempts to catch and slauqhter the only goose they have, the creature flees to the gods, who reveal their identity to couple. Then they punish everyone, but Philemon and Baucis by letting everyone sink into a bog. Rubens’s composition provided the model for many other depictions of this subject in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Isabella Clara Eugenia, the regent of the Spanish Netherlands, commissioned this triptych for the altar of the Ildefonso Brotherhood in the church of St. Jacob op de Coudenberg at Brussels. The Brotherhood had been founded by her deceased husband, Archduke Albrecht, with the aim of venerating St. Ildefonso and stimulating loyalty to the House of Habsburg. The central panel flanked by the opened wings depicts a scene from the life of St. Ildefonso; the Virgin bathed in heavenly light miraculously appeared to him in his own church and handed him a vestment. The rendering of the saint’s devotion with which he receives this heavenly gift documents Rubens’s ability to depict and combine in magical unity sacred matters and human emotions. On the wings kneel Archduke Albrecht and his wife; both are being presented to the Virgin by their respective patron saints, St. Albrecht and St. Elisabeth of Hungary. A triptych is an unusual choice for a Baroque artist. However, this format allows Rubens to separate the heavenly from the earthly sphere, while at the same time emphasizing the monument-like character of the painting.
In all of these works, religious paintings, tapestry designs, book illustrations, and other projects, Rubens exhibited extraordinary learning and imagination. In the later 1620s, the demands of Rubens’s international clientele and his role in peace negotiations between England and Spain made him the “most harassed man in the world” (as he complained in his extensive correspondence). He spent seven months in Madrid in 1628–29, where he portrayed the royal family and made copies after Titian, and nine months in London in 1629–30 (the ceiling paintings of the Banqueting House at Whitehall, London, were completed in Antwerp by 1634). In 1630, Rubens remarried and in the next few years organized his studio to work efficiently in his absence; large-scale projects such as the decoration of the Torre de la Parada (Philip IV’s hunting lodge near Madrid) and the decorative scheme for the triumphal entry into Antwerp of the new governor, Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, were executed almost entirely by assistants and collaborators following the master’s designs. However, numerous landscapes, unofficial portraits, and other pictures were painted entirely by Rubens during this period, either in Antwerp or at his country estate of Steen (purchased in 1635). He died in 1640, leaving behind five children, an impressive art collection, and a body of work that profoundly influenced artists—including Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, Reynolds, Géricault, and Delacroix, for more than two centuries. Despite his great success at court, Rubens always remained ambivalent about courtly life. In the final phase of his life he sought to be released from most of his diplomatic responsibilities. While he provided this portrait of his later years with the attributes of a courtly portrait, (the column, sword and glove), he paid more attention to individual facial features than was otherwise customary in a portrait of this type.
I chose to do this post because the Kunsthistorisches Museum has a collection of Rubens’s work that spans his entire career. I happen to love his paintings, along with the rest of the world, and there are so many more that I did not cover; more to come in the future. Rubens was a remarkable man and an exceptional artist. If you are in Vienna, be sure to visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Rubens and Van Dyke: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rvd_p/hd_rvd_p.htm
Rubens and the Jesuits: http://www.faculty.fairfield.edu/jmac/sj/cj/cj2art.html
Assumption of the Virgin Mary: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/arthistory/faculty/Freedberg/Source-for-Rubens-Modello.pdf
Rubens and the Humanist Garden: http://digitool.library.mcgill.ca/webclient/StreamGate?folder_id=0&dvs=1385344023016~135
Jan Wildens: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Arcandam/Sandbox