Eminent Flemish painter, b. at Siegen, Westphalia, 28 June, 1577; d. at Antwerp, 30 May, 1640.
His father, Jan Rubens, a lawyer and alderman of Antwerp, was a Protestant who had fled from his native city to Cologne at the time that the Spanish governor was making strong efforts to extirpate heresy in Flanders. After various troublous experiences in connection with the Dutch army, with the wife of Prince William of Orange, and following upon more than one imprisonment, the father, who had temporarily to leave Cologne, returned to that city, where Peter Paul commenced his studies. His mother, Maria Pypelinx, had continued a Catholic, although she temporarily concealed the fact during her aggressive husband's life, but she insisted upon the boy's education at a Jesuit school. She herself was formally received back into the Catholic Church, immediately upon the death of the elder Rubens, when, though in reduced circumstances, she was able to return to Antwerp. From her and from his schoolmaster Rombout Verdonck, Rubens acquired the strong religious character which marked the whole of his career. His earliest days were passed as a page in the household of a princess, the widow of Count van Lalaing, former Governor of Antwerp. When nearly thirteen the young Rubens was sent to the studio of Tobias Verhæcht, and thence quickly removed to study under Adam van Noort where he made the acquaintance of Jordaens, a fellow pupil in the same studio and a lifelong friend of the great artist. He soon went to a third studio, that of Otto van Veen, and remained with this last master until 1598, when he was admitted to the Painters' Guild of Antwerp, and started on his first jorney to Italy (1600).
He carried introductions to the Duke of Mantua, Vincenzo Gonzaga, received his patronage, and was sent by him to Florence, Genoa, and Rome to carry out important commissions. He then returned to Mantua and was sent to Spain in charge of certain portraits intended as diplomatic presents. On his return to Italy he entered into the Duke's permanent service, but was permitted to spend considerable time in Rome where he continued his studies. In 1608 he left Italy and returned to his own city of Antwerp, where he married Isabella Brant and settled down as an artist of great renown. He joined more than one religious guild connected with the local churches, and especially became attached to that of St. Peter and St. Paul, in honour of whose great festival on the day of his birth, Rubens had received his two Christian names. At this time he commenced his great house, splendidly built, lavishly decorated, and installed with many fine treasures which he had acquired in Italy. He lived there in great luxury, full of commissions, and surrounded by a host of pupils, among whom was Anthony van Dyck who rivalled and even surpassed him in portraiture, and the eminent painters Jordaens, Snyders, de Vos, and Justus von Egmont.
Here his two sons, Albert and Nicholas, were born. In 1622 he was commissioned to paint the great pictures representing Marie de' Medici, now in a gallery in the Louvre; this occupied him for two years. His wife died in 1626, and four years after, he married Helena Fourment, the daughter of Isabella Brant's sister. Meantime, he had become painter-in-ordinary to the new Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, the Infanta Isabella, who kept him very busy, both as artist and diplomatist, for which his courtliness and sweetness of manner particularly fitted him. In 1629 he was sent to London by the Count Olivarès by way of Brussels and Paris, and was knighted by Charles I on 21 February,1629-30. After his second marriage he purchased a great house near Mechlin and there prepared his designs for the pageant intended to commemorate the triumphal entry into Antwerp of the new governor, Archduke Ferdinand. This governor made him Court painter and showered various commissions upon him, among them the decorations of a shooting box which the King of Spain was at that time erecting near Madrid. By this time Rubens' wonderful energy and health were so broken, that many of his later pictures were executed by his pupils under his supervision and are to a very slight extent his own work.
He had become a man of considerable means through countless commissions not only in painting and designing pictures, but in etching, silver point work, preparing designs for tapestry, engraving on silver, and scheming the entire decoration for the wonderful pageants that were a feature of his period and country. A man of prodigious energy and overpowering enthusiasm, he was the author of perhaps a larger number of huge pictures than can be attributed to any other painter, and though very many of his works were entirely executed by his own hand, he trained his pupils to so skilfully copy his methods and carry out his ideas that in many cases all the rough and bolder work of the picture was executed by them, he himself applying the final details and glazes, which enabled the picture to be declared a masterpiece and gave to it that quality which his hand alone could supply. The best of his religious work is at Antwerp, but the twenty-two pictures representing the history of Marie de' Medici, on all of which he was supposed to have worked to a certain extent, stand supreme in decorative work. Several of his finest portraits are in Madrid, others in Munich, and one or two of his masterpieces in the National Gallery in London, but almost all the great galleries of Europe contain representative examples of his work. Dresden, Brussels, Frankfort, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin, Florence, and Windsor must all be visited if any adequate idea of the output of this extraordinary and remarkable painter is to be obtained.
He has been the subject of many biographies and of constant research. He is always somewhat of a mystery, for at first one is depressed by his very exuberance, his unbridled artistic frenzy, and the vast show of flesh and power which characterize his pictures, while to many who love tenderness, mysticism, a sensitive quality, and stately dignity, his impropriety and exaggerated enthusiasm is repugnant. Some of the greatest artists, such as Rossetti, were in their early days unable to understand the anomalies in the art of Rubens or to appreciate his greatest pictures even in their most lenient moods. There is such an abundant glory, such powerful organic life in the work of this majestic colourist, that his pictures are not easy to appreciate until one is practically vanquished by the glory of their colour and the luxuriance of their unrestraint. A deeper consideration awakens fuller appreciation and the marvellous conceptions of the artist and his exuberant ideas of magnificence impress and reveal the high position of the painter.
In his drawings he is almost supreme. His religious pictures, when properly regarded and thoughtfully understood, are impressive in their intense religious quality apart from the fury of colour and extravagance. His portraits are triumphant, sometimes perhaps sensual, often dreamy, always impressive. He is unequalled as to colours, and though fuller of the delights of earth than of heaven, yet when the nature of the man is understood the intensely devout quality of his beautiful religious pictures can be appreciated. It is, however, as a draughtsman and colourist, as a master of pageant and a decorator of the highest position that the fame of Rubens has been created.
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