Peter Paul Rubens: Key Facts, Paintings, and Style

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Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a Flemish artist known for his dramatic Baroque style.

Rubens, Self-portrait, 1628
Rubens, Self-portrait, 1628

Key Details

Birth: Date: 28 June 1577 Place: Siegen, Germany

Death: Age: 62 Date: 13 May 1640, Place: Antwerp, Belgium

Education: Classically educated and apprenticed to art teachers.

Medium: Oil

Style: Baroque

Peter Paul Rubens, Nicolas Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens, Nicolas Rubens

Education

Peter Paul Rubens received a Roman Catholic classical education. After the death of his father, young Peter Paul’s mother organized for her son to become a page boy to a countess. Rubens did not enjoy court life or the work and longed to be a painter. However, he clearly understood the benefits of court life and the proximity to nobility, as this was later to become the social environment in which his work was sought.

His mother could not initially afford private art lessons, so he was apprenticed to a family member and artist, Tobias Verhaecht. As Rubens’ talent became recognized, he was invited to study under more prestigious art masters: Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen. Rubens was a fast learner, and his skill soon blossomed. The logical next step in his education was Italy, so he traveled to Rome, where he eventually painted significant religious works and attracted important commissions.

Rubens, The Elevation of the Cross, 1610
Rubens, The Elevation of the Cross, 1610

The Artist and Artistic Style

Rubens was prolific, producing some 1400 works of considerable dimensions. He established a workshop that was much like an early production line of sorts, whereby he would hand-draw commissioned artworks and then instruct his apprentices in the execution of their paintings. Rubens was a meticulous taskmaster, overseeing all work and applying his finishing touches. In a letter dated 28 April 1816, Rubens wrote to art collector Sir Dudley Carleton: [those paintings are] done by one of my pupils, but the whole retouched by my hand. (Translated from Italian, by R. Saunders Magurn, ‘The letters of Peter Paul Rubens’, Cambridge Mass., 1955, p.60-61).

We owe the term Rubenesque to Rubens, who typically portrayed women as voluptuously curvy, with the vigor of life. Swathes of flowers, rich draperies, and cherubs were added to satisfy Baroque ideals of godly perfection.

Rubens, The Three Graces, 1635
Rubens, The Three Graces, 1635

Similarly, Ruben’s men are robust with defined muscles-whether well-clothed nobles or near-naked soldiers dying in religious battle. Even in death, these are men bearing the flush of life.

Rubens, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1612
Rubens, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1612

Notoriety and Influence

While studying and painting in Italy, Rubens returned to Antwerp when he learned his mother was dying, and there he remained. Archduke Albert bestowed upon the young Rubens the title of court painter, following which he received commissions from the church, nobility, and political figures. His art career was then fully launched and never ceased to be in demand.

With his increasing accessibility to the major European arenas of influence, in 1603 Rubens was sought out by Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Italy to travel to Spain on a diplomatic mission to the court of Philip III. So successful was Rubens’ ability to combine diplomacy and art that he was recruited for many more expeditions as a covert spy, diplomat, and art professional. His merit as an emissary clearly matched his artistic skill. In his own words in a letter dated May 1635 to his friend, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Periresc: I am by nature and inclination a peaceful man, the sworn enemy to disputes, lawsuits, and quarrels both public and private. Rubens’ diplomacy was recognized in the bestowal of knighthoods upon him by both Phillip III, King of Spain, and Charles I, King of England.

The Garden of Love, by Peter Paul Rubens
The Garden of Love, by Peter Paul Rubens

Personal Life

A far cry from the stereotypically impoverished artist who realizes notoriety after death, Peter Paul Rubens was famous in his own time and enjoyed a life of prosperity and influence. He was happily married to Isabella Brant and devastated when she died, probably of bubonic plague. Four years later, at the age of 53, he married 16-year-old Hélène Fourmont. This young and pretty second wife was his inspiration for the sensuous women of his art. His second marriage was also happy. He was a devoted family man and a gentleman of diplomatic wisdom and admiration.

Other Notable Paintings

The Portrait of a Young Man, 1597
The Raising of the Cross, 1610
The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, 1617
The Adoration of the Magi, 1624
The Judgment of Paris, 1639

Quotes on Rubens

“A prince of painters, and painter of princes.” Sir Dudley Carleton, art collector.

“[those paintings that are] done entirely by my hand…. [those,] done by the hand of a master skillful in that department… but this one not being finished, would be entirely retouched by my own hand, and by this means would pass as original; done by one of my pupils, but the whole retouched by my hand.” In a letter of 28 April 1618, to the collector Sir Dudley Carleton (transl. from Italian, R. Saunders Magurn, ‘The letters of Peter Paul Rubens’, Cambridge Mass., 1955, p.60-61).

“Peter Paul Rubens, Lord of Steen, who among the other gifts by which he marvelously excelled in the knowledge of ancient history merited being called the Apollos not only of our, but of all time, who made himself a pathway to the friendship of kings and princes.” Inscription by Jan Gavaerts, 1640 (as quoted by Jonathan Brown, in ‘Kings and Connoisseurs: Collecting in Seventeenth-Century Europe’, Princeton 1995, p. 123).

Rubens, A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning,1636
Rubens, A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning,1636

Learn More

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Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

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