Peter Paul Rubens was born on June 28, 1577 in Seigen, Westphalia. His father was a lawyer from Antwerp that was “banished” for having an affair with the wife of a powerful man, forcing the family to leave. When Rubens was 10, his father died and his mother took the family back to Antwerp.
I had no idea where Seigen was, so here’s a map. It’s in Germany.
His first job was as court page to a countess when he was 13. He didn’t enjoy the work, but the experience at court probably helped him later in his duties as a diplomat. After this he started on his path to become an artist, apprenticing under other artists until in 1598 he was admitted to the Antwerp Saint Luke’s Guild as a master.
Rubens’ Early Career
Like many artists, Rubens found inspiration in Italy. He traveled there in 1600 where he was influenced by masters like Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Michelangelo. He soon found work under the Duke of Mantua, Vincenzo I Gonzaga, who paid both for his artwork and his travels. Rubens also had access to the Gonzaga collection, where he would have seen work like Andrea Mantegna’s frescoes and drawings by Raphael.
As the Duke sent him to places like the Dutch Republic, Genoa, and Spain, Rubens demonstrated a gift for both business and art. His work as an artist included commissions from churches and elite private clients. On a visit to Rome in 1602, he painted three pieces for the Church of Santa Croce. In 1603, Rubens began an eight-month visit at the Spanish, during which time he painted an equestrian portrait for the Duke of Lerma.
Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma. 1603.
Vincenzo I commissioned three paintings of the Holy Trinity for the Jesuit Church in Mantua in 1604, which Rubens worked on through 1605. The commissions continued to roll in and Rubens’ professional relationships soon came to include other masters like Jan Brueghel the Elder and Jacob Jordaens. He also met Anthony van Dyck, who would become his most famous student.
Back to Antwerp (Again)
Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1609. He was appointed court painter to Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella who governed Southern Netherlands on behalf of Spain. Their patronage contributed to his growing popularity and wealth, allowing him purchase a grand estate and establish his own studio, full of assistants and students. He started his own collection of art, sculpture, gems, coins, curiosities, and more – even including a gallery for his collection in the plans when he remodeled his house.
That same year he married Isabella Brandt and he was as dedicated to her as he was to his work.
Portrait of Isabella Brandt. c. 1620-1625.
The Medici Cycle
My first degree is in Art History. Whenever the name Peter Paul Rubens came up (and it did a lot), so did Marie de Medici. Every time. By the time I was done with school, I was done with her. But let’s face it – drama queens stand the test of time and she was a queen with all the drama.
Marie de Medici was the Italian widow of King Henry IV of France and mother to King Louis XIII. She ordered the Luxembourg Palace in Paris to be built in 1615. As it was to be her home, she made every effort to decorate it with the nostalgia of her Florentine past. Consistently self-indulgent, she decided to fill two large galleries with paintings depicting the lives of her and the late king.
Luxembourg Palace in Paris.
In 1622, Rubens accepted this commission from the Queen and every bit of diplomacy he had learned up to this point would be required to get the job done. He agreed to complete the first set of paintings (Marie’s life) in four years. He finished in 1625 with a cycle comprised of 21 paintings, each one over 13 feet (4m) tall, along with three portraits of the Queen and her parents. Oh, and he did all that alone while dealing with the soap opera that was Marie de Medici’s life.
When Marie commissioned the paintings she had just returned from exile, which imposed by her son when she refused to relinquish power after serving as regent until he came of age. They did eventually patch things up and Marie used the paintings to tell her side of the story and justify her position of power.
The Felicity of the Regency of Marie de’ Medici. This painting replaced the one he did showing Marie getting exiled.
Rubens also had to be aware of how he portrayed King Henry IV . Each painting both politicized and idealized key moments of Marie’s life, often contrasting with historical fact. Presentation of the Portrait is a perfect example where Henry and Marie’s betrothal is represented as “a union ordained by the gods.” It was actually the result of two years of negotiation between France and Italy. That’s perfectly normal for royal unions of the time, but what this painting also leaves out is the fact that Henry was more interested in his mistress who he had promised to marry. This was also pretty normal for royal unions of the time.
The Presentation of Her Portrait to Henry IV. He looks so in love!
Marie was considered awkward and fickle and her personality certainly didn’t make Rubens’ job any easier. To make matters worse, she didn’t pay him on time and she didn’t pay him the full amount they agreed upon. The King’s cycle of paintings was never completed.
Unfortunately for Marie, she tended to overplay her hand and her son exiled her again in 1630. If you want to read more about the Marie de Medici cycle itself and learn about the details of the paintings, I highly recommend this article.
Rubens’ Later Years
Rubens’ wife Isabella died in 1626, possibly from the plague. Her death was very difficult for him and he dealt with the grief by working. He traveled for years, using his time in Spain and England as a diplomat to continue his art. After his return to Antwerp in 1630 he married Helena Fourment, the 16 year old daughter of a merchant. He painted her portrait and included her image in various mythological paintings.
Rubens also began to paint more landscapes toward the end of his life. These paintings were more for himself than anyone else. Sadly, he suffered from gout for years until it left him unable to paint. He died soon after on May 30, 1640.
We’re halfway through our Artists of the Month for 2022! Did you see last month’s?