His father’s life had been filled with scandal and he spent time in prison. In contrast, Rubens was a devoted family man and led a peaceful life. Sir Dudley Carlton, one of his admirers, described Rubens as “prince of painters and painter of princes” because he painted several members of royal families. As an artist in the courts he could quietly observe what was going on, and he was asked to become a diplomat to help solve political problems…..Leonardo Da Vinci is known by the Mona Lisa’s smile and the Flemish master Peter-Paul Rubens’ trademark is large women. The adjective Rubenesque was coined to describe women who have admirable figures but are rather larger than fashion models.
It is unjust that Rubens (1577-1640) is generally known only in this rather patronising way because in his lifetime he was the most famous and sought-after painter in Europe. He was the confidant of princes and kings, knighted by Charles II of England. He was also an admirable personality, a family man, and a scholar fluent in several languages and learned in Latin and Greek.For the sheer handling of paint, Rubens has a good claim to being the greatest. He could paint anything at any size – often the larger the better – and at virtuoso speed. He once wrote, ”My endowments are such that my courage has always been equal to any enterprise”.
The Stoicism that counseled the pursuit of equanimity taught, too, the need for constant self-discipline. This was another lesson Rubens took to heart. When he was thirteen he spent a few months as a page in a noble household, acquiring there the polite manners and ease of bearing that late gave him approval at the courts of princes. But the urge to become an artist proved irresistible, and the page became an apprentice in a painter’s studio. No apprentice was ever more conscientious and methodical. Though his extraordinary gifts were already evident, Rubens held them in check with a determined self-discipline, insisting on the acquisition of technique as his first priority.
It was possible to learn much about the craft of painting in the Netherlands, but rhe Netherlands, like all northern Europe, still looked to Italy as its fountainhead. In order to continue his education as an artist in the homeland of classical antiquity, which he already knew so well from his reading, Rubens left Antwerp in the spring of 1600 and set out for Italy. There he would spend the next eight years of his life, studying and copying classical models and the masterpieces of Renaissance and post-Renaissance art, displaying his virtuosity and establishing a European reputation.
The Italian years were critical for Rubens’s artistic development. He immersed himself in the classical culture that was to afford him such pleasure and inspiration throughout his working life, and he absorbed the full impact of Italian Counter Reformation art, triumphantly displayed in the Rome of the great Sixtus V and his successors. There, in the basilica of St. Peter’s, in the splendid Jesuit church of the Gesu, in the palaces of cardinals, and in numerous churches and convents, he saw and admired the work of the new generation of Italian artists and craftsmen.
His contemporaries, Annibale Carracci, Domenichino, Guido Reni, the reckless Caravaggio, all were grappling with the problem that preoccupied Rubens: how to escape the cliches of the Mannerist style and represent traditional themes and the familiar dramas of the Old and New Testaments with a new spontaneity. Rubens solution, which came only after years of trial and effort, exactly reflected his genius and temperament.
In his great religious paintings, the ”Adoration of the Kings” of 1609-10, for instance, and the “Descent From the Cross”, of 1611-14, pathos is expressed in sweeping curves and richly orchestrated colors. But the drama is under control, and it is that extraordinary confrontation of energy and discipline that gives Ruben’s religious works their inner dynamic and stamped them so forcefully on the consciousness of his age.
Rubens, however, was too versatile, too interested in everything, to let himself be typecast as a religious artist. Titian, whom he greatly admired, had excelled both in portraiture and in representations of classical mythology. Rubens would do no less. Artists in the seventeenth century however,were not their own masters. Though the achievements of some of their recent predecessors had done something to enhance their social status, they remained essentially craftsmen, practitioners of the mechanical arts, dependent on the commissions of patrons, enlightened or unenlightened.
Given the circumstances of his time, Rubens was fortunate in his first major patron, Duke Vincenzo of Mantua. Though the duke had little to reccomend him personally, he enthusiastically continued the Gonzaga family tradition of lavish artistic patronage. Discovering the work of Rubens on a visit to Venice in 1600, he offered the artist a place in his service. It was, therefore, under the duke of Mantua’s auspices that Rubens lived and worked in Italy. His position often involved him in tedious commissions for his ducal master, but it also provided him with financial security, valuable social connections, and above all, the opportunity to study.
Mantua in the early seventeenth-century was an artistic treasure house. In the Palazzo de Te, the summer palace designed and decorated by Giulio Romano, Rubens could contemplate the overwhelming frescoes of “The Fall of the Titans”. In the ducal galleries he could spend hours before the Mantegnas, the Raphaels, the Titians, the Tintorettos, the Correggios, and the Veroneses.
His time in Italy was not, however, spent entirely in Mantua, for a duke, a restless voluptuary and congenital traveler, was happy to let Rubens travel. He went not only to the major cities of Italy, but also, in 1603, to Spain. The duke had commissioned him to deliver a series of conciliatory gifts to Philip III; rock crystal vases, a coach with six bay horses, and for the duke of Lerma, the king’s favorite and a man with a taste for the arts, copies of sixteen pictures in the Mantuan collection. Unfortunately, Lerma’s pictures were damaged in transit, and Rubens had a hectic time surrepititously restoring them before finally handing them over to the court in Valladolid.
The visit to Spain gave Rubens the chance to see the superb royal collection of Titians at the Escorial, and it also gave him his first introduction to the world of high politics and diplomacy. In particular, he attracted the attention of the duke of Lerma, of whom he painted an unusual equestrian portrait. For a man who would later represent his government in delicate diplomatic negotiatiuons, such contacts in Spain would prove highly advantageous. Shortly before his death, Philip II had nominally made over the loyal provinces of the Netherlands to his daughter Isabella and her husband the Hapsburg Archduke Albert, but they still belonged inexorably to the Hispanic world and would continue to do so as long as they were dependent on Spanish aid in their struggle against the rebellious Protestant provinces to the north. Ties between the Spanish court and Brussels, capital of the southern provinces, were close, of not cordial, and Rubens, as a loyalist Netherlander, was to find easy acceptance in that community of peoples and provinces that owed allegiance to the king of Spain.
He felt more at home, however, in a wider international community; that of arts and letters. The lingua franca was still Latin, although Italian was now beginning to replace it, and Rubens wrote his letters in Italian, not Spanish, occasionally resorting to French or his native Flemish. Yet for all his newfound cosmopolitanism, he reserved his deepest loyalties for his northern homeland. A visit to Genoa in 1607 must have acted as a powerful reminder of his native Antwerp, for Genoa was to the Mediterranean world what Antwerp, before the wars, had been to northern Europe; a center of international trade and finance, and a prosperous port city governed by a wealthy urban aristocracy.
Rubens painted the portraits of some of these Genoese patricians and he closely studied the design of the spacious town houses where they lived their comfortable lives. These houses suggested to him a pattern of living that he felt was immediately applicable to Antwerp. When he eventually returned home in 1608 and bought himself a house, he would proceed to remodel it in the Italian manner, and in Antwerp in 1622 he would publish a volume of plans and engravings of the palaces of Genoa.