1902 Encyclopedia > Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens
Flemish painter
(1577-1640)




PETER PAUL RUBENS (1577-1640 ), the most eminent representative of Flemish art, and one of the greatest painters of any school, was born very probably at Siegen, in Westphalia, on the 29th of June 1577. Till some thirty years ago Cologne might still claim the honour of having been the master"s birth place; the Renish city is mentioned by Rubens himself, in one of his letters, as closely connected with his childhood, and through his fathers epitaph we learn that for more than nineteen years Cologne was the family"s place of refuge amid the disturbances prevailing in the Low Countries. This, however, has been proved to be but part of the truth, and, if Ruben"s parents certainly during several years did live at Cologne, they also resided elsewhere, and that for reasons so strong that both wife and husband might well desire to see them for ever buried in secrecy.

Peter Paul Rubens image

Self Portrait of Peter Paul Rubens


Although of humble descent,- his father was a druggist, -John Rubens was a man of learning. He had studied law at home and abroad, and became councillor and alderman in his native town (1562) . A catholic by birth , it was not long before he became, like of his many country men, a zealous upholder of the Reformation, and we even find him spoken of by contemporary as " le plus docte Calviniste qui fust pour lors au Bas Pays." After the plundering of the Antwerp churches in 1566, the magistrates were called upon for a justification. While openly they declared themselves devoted sons of the church, a list of the followers of the Reformed creed, headed by the name of Anthony Van Stralen, the burgomaster, got into the hands of the duke of Alva. This was a sentence of death for the magistrates, and John Rubens lost no time in quitting Spanish soil, ultimately settling at Cologne (October 1568), with his wife and four children.

In his new residence he became legal adviser to Anne of Saxony, the second wife of the prince of Orange, William the silent. Before long it s discovered that their relations were not purely of a business kind. Thrown into the dungeons of Dillenburg, Rubens lingered there for many months, his wife, Maria Pypelincx, never relaxing her endeavours to get the undutiful husband restord to freedom. Two years elapsed before the prisoner was released, and then only to be confined to the small town of Siegen. Here we lived with his family, from 1573 to 1578, and here most probably Maria Pypelincx gave birth to Philip, afterwards town-clerk of Antwerp, and Peter Paul. A year after (May 1578) the Antwerp lawyer got leave to return to Cologne, where he died on the 18th of March 1578, after having, it is said, return to Catholicism. As there are at Siegen a few days before his birth, for we find her there, petitioning in favour of John Rubens, on June 14,1577.

Rubens went to Antwerp with his mother when he was scarcely ten years of age, and made good progress in his classical studies, which he had begun with the Jesuits at Cologne. An excellent Latin scholar, he was also proficient in French, Italian, English, German, and Dutch. Part of his boyhood he spent as page in the household of the countess of Lalaing, in Brussels; but, tradition adds, and we may well believe, the youth"s disposition was such as to induce his mother to allow him to follow his proper vocation, choosing as his master Tobias Verhaecht, who was in some way connected with the family. Not the slightest trace of this first master"s influence can be detected in Rubens"s works. Not so with Adam Van Noort, to whom the young man was next apprenticed. Van Noort, whose aspect of energy is well known through Van Dyck"s beautiful etching, was the highly esteemed master of numerous painters,- among them Van Balen, Sebastian Vrancx, and Jordaens, later his son in law. His pictures are almost exclusively to be found I Antwerp churches.

Rubens remained with van Noort for the usual peiod of four years, thereafter studying under Otto voenius or Van Veen , a gentlemen by birth, a most distinguished Latin scholar, and a painter of veru high repute. He was a native of Leyden, and only recently settled in Antwerp, but the town gave him numerous commissions of importance. Though Rubens never adoptedhis style of painting, tha tastes of master and pupil had much in common, and some pictures by Otto Voenius can be pointed out as having inspired Rubens at a more advanced period. For example, the Magdalene anointing Christ"s Feet, painted for the cathedral at Malaga, and now at the hermitage in Saint Petersburg, closely resembles in composition the very important work of Otto Voenius in the church at Bergues near Dunkirk.

In 1598, Adam Van Noort acting as dean of the Antwerp guild of painters, Rubens as officially recognized as "master,"-that is, was allowed to work independently and receive pupils. We have no means of forming an idea if his style at this early period, two years before his journey to Italy, but even the somewhat later works found at Genoa, Mantua, and rome differ considerably from what may be termed the Rubenesque.

From 1600 to the latter part of 1608 Rubens belonged to the household of Vincenzo Gonzaga, duke of Mantua. Few princes in Italy surpassed the Gonzagas splendour. For them Mantegma, Giulio Romano, Titian, and Primaticcio had produced some of their most admired works, and their now deserted palaces still bear traces of the richest decoration. To the Mantuan collection the Pitti palace, the Louvre, and the royal galleries of England owe some of their noblest specimens of Italian art. How Rubens came to be engaged at Mantua has not been explained. The duke, it is known, spent some time at Venice in July 1600, and is supposed there to have met his future painter, but it is also to be remembered that another Fleming, Francis Pourbus the younger, was at the time employed by him in taking the likeness of the prettiest women of the day ; and Rubens, much against his will, was also, at first, it seems, intrusted with a similar task. The influence of the master"s stay at Mantua was of extreme importance, and cannot be too constantly kept in view in the study of his later works.

Sent to Rome in 1601, to take copies from Raphael for his master, he was also commissioned to paint several pictures for the church of Santa Croce, by the archduke Albert of Austria, sovereign of the Spanish Netherlands, and once, when he was cardinal, the titularof that see. A copy of Mercury and Psyche after Rafael is preserved at the museum at Pesth. The religious paintings- the Invention of the Cross, the Crowning with Thorns, and the Crucifixion-are to be found in the hospital at Grasse in Provence.

At the beginning of 1603 "The Fleming," as he was termed at Mantua, was sent to Spain with a variety of presents for Philip III. And his minister the duke of Lerma, and thus had opportunity to spend a whole year at Madrid and become acquainted with some of Titian"s masterpieces. Two of his own works, known to belong to the same period, are in the Madrid Gallery, Heraclitus and Democritus. Of Rubens abilities so far back as 1604 we get a more complete idea from an immense picture now in the Antwerp Gallery, the Babtism of Our Lord, originally painted for the Jesuits at Mantua. Here it may be seen to what degree Italian surroundings had influenced the painter of Vincenzo Gonzaga. Vigorous to the extreme in design, he reminds us of Michelangelo us much as any of the degenerate masters of the Roman school, while in the decorative skill he seems to be descended from Titian and in the colouring from Giulio Romano. Equally with this picture the Transfiguration, now in the museum at Nancy, and the portraits of Vincenzo and his consort, kneeling before the Trinity, in the library at Mantua, claim a large share of attention, apart from the interest awakened by the name their author.

Two years later we meet a very large altarpiece of the circumcision at St Ambrogio at Genoa, the Virgin in a glory of Angels, and two groups of Saints, painted on the wall, at both side of the high altar of the church of Santa Maria in Valicella, in Rome. Undoubtedly this works give an impression of gandeur and effectiveness, but, in the immediate vicinity of the finest productions of the Italian school, they rank higher as documentary evidence than in intrinsic values, and remind us of a saying of Baglione, who was acquainted with Rubens in Italy, "Apprese egli buon gusto, e deide in na maniera buona Italiana."

While employed at Rome in 1608, Ruben received most alarming news as to the state of his mother’s health. The duke of Gonzaga was then absent from Italy, but the dutiful son, without awaiting his return, at once set out for the Netherlands, though with the full intention of shortly resuming his post at court, aswe gather from a letter to Annibale Chieppio, the Mantuan minister. When he arrived in Antwerp, Maria Pypelincx was no more. However strong his wish might now be to return to Italy, his purpose was overruled by the express desire of his sovereigns, Albert and Isabella, to see him take up a permanent residence in the Belgian province. Scarcely a year before, the archduke had unsuccessfully attempted to free the painter from his engagement at Mantua, and he could not fail to take advantage of the opportunity now presented for the fulfillment of his wishes. On August 3, 1609, Rubens was named painter in ordinary to their highnesses, with a salary of 500 livres, and " the rights, honours, privileges, exemptions," &c., belonging to persons of the royal household, not speak of the gift of a gols chain. Not least in importance for the painter was his complete exemption from all the regulations of the guild of St Luke, entitling him to engage any scholars or fellow workers, without being obliged to have them enrolled, -a favour, it must be added, which has been the source of the considerable trouble to the historians of Flemish art.

Although so recently returned to his native land, Rubens seems to have been, with the one accord, accepted by his countrymen as the head of their school, and the municipality was foremost in giving him the means of proving his acquirements. The first in date among the numerous repetitions of the Adoration of the Magi is a picture in the Madrid Gallery, measuring 12 feet by 17, and containing no fewer than eight-and-twenty lie size figures, many in gorgeous attire, warriors in steel armour, horsemen, slaves, camels, &c. this picture, painted in Antwerp, at the town’s expense in 1609, had scarcely remained three in the town-hall when it went to Spain as a present to Don Rodrigo Calderon, count of Oliva. The painter has represented himself among the horsemen, bareheaded, and wearing his gold chain. Cumberland speaks of this picture as the standard work of its author, and certainly it was well calculated to bring Rubens to the front rank in his profession. From a letters written in May 1611 we know that more than a hundred young men were desirous to become his pupils, and that many had, " for several years" been waiting with other masters, until he could admit them to his studio. It was thus from the beginning regarded as a great favour to be admitted a pupil of Rubens.

Apart from the success of his works, another powerful motive had helped to detain the master in Antwerp,-his marriage with Isabella Brant (October 16090. many pictures have made us familiar with the graceful young woman who was for seventeen years to share the master’s destinies. We meet her at The Hague, St Petersburg, Florence, at Grosvenor House, but more especially at Munich, where Rubens and his wife are depicted at full length on the same canvass. "His wife is very handsome," observe Sir Joshua Reynolds, "and has an agreeable countenance;" but the picture, he adds, "is rather hard in manner." This, it must be noted, is the case with all those picture known to have immediately followed Ruben’s return, when he was still dependent on the assistance of painter trainedby others than himself. Even in the Raising of the Cross, now in the Antwerp cathedral, and painted for the church of St Walburg in 1610, the dryness in outline is very striking.

According to the taste still at that time prevailing, the picture is tripartite, but the wings only serve to develop the central composition, and add to the general effect. In Witdoeck’s beautiful engraving the partitions even disappear. Thus, from the first, we see Rubens quite determined upon having his own way, and it is recorded that, when he painted the Descent from the Cross, St Christopher, the subject chosen by the Arquebusiers, was altered so as to bring the artistic expressions into better accordance with his views. Although the subject was frequently repeated by the great painter, this first Descent from the Cross has not ceased to be looked upon as his masterpiece. Begun in 1611, the celebrated work was placed in 1614, and certainly no more striking evidence could be given of the rapid growth of the author’s abilities. Rubens received 2400 florins for this picture.

Although it is chance that has brought the Raising of the Cross and the Descent from the Cross into their present close juxtaposition, it is not improbable that their uniformity in size may have been designed. In many respects, Italian influence remains conspicuous in the Descent. Rubens had seen Ricciarelli’s fresco at the Trinita de’ Monti, and was also acquainted with the grandiose picture of Baroccio in the cathedral of Perugia, and on one conversant with these works can mistake their influence. But in Rubens strength of personality could not be overpowered by reminiscence; and in type, as well as in colouring, the Descent from the Cross may be termed thoroughly Flemish and Rubenesque. As Waagen justly observes: "the boldness of the composition, the energy in the characters, the striking attitudes, and the effects of the grouping, together with the glowing vigorous colouring, belong to his later style, where as a few of the heads, particularly that of the Virgin, display the careful execution of their earlier period. The interior of the wings, on which are painted the Visitation and the Presentation in the Temple, exhibit, on the other hand, a greater resemblance to the conjugal picture already alluded to, owing to a certain repose in action, a more elevated expression of delicacy and feeling in the characters, and less glowing though still admirable colouring."





Legends, in some way, connects Van Dyck with the Descent from the Cross, and ascribes to the great portrait painter an arm and shoulder of Mary Magdalene, which had been damaged by a pupil’s carelessness. Plain truth here, once more seems to contradict romance. Van Dyck was pupil of Van Balen’s in 1609, and most probably remained with him several years before coming to Rubens.

If Sir Dudley Carleton could speak of Atwerp in 1616 as "Magna civitas, magna solitude," there was o place nevertheless which could give a wider scope to artistic enterprise. Spain and the Unted Province were for a time at peace; almost all the churches had been stripped of their adornments; monastic order were powerful and richly endowed, guilds and corporations eager to show the fervour of their Catholic faith, now that the "monster of heresy" seems for ever quelled. Here were opportunities without number for painter as well as sculptors and architects. Gothic churches began to be decorated according to the new fashion-adopted in Italy. Altar magnified to monuments, sometimes reaching the full height of the vaulted roof, displayed, between their twisted columns, pictures of a size hitherto unknown. No master seemed better fitted to be associated with this kind of painting than Rubens, whose works we have already met with in churches newly erected at Rome, Genoa, and Mantua, by the Jesuits, in the gorgeous style which bears their name, and which Rubens commends in the preface to his Palazzi di Genova (Antwerp, 1622). The temple erected by the reverend fathers in Antwerp was almost entirely the painter’s work, and if he did not, was the inspirer of the whole building, which, after all, was but a reminiscence of the churches in Genoa. And the temple of the Jesuits in Antwerp remained for the century the only example of its kind in Belgium. Hitherto no Fleming had undertaken to paint ceilings with foreshortened figures, and blend the religious with the decorative art after the style of those buildings which are met with in Italy, and owe their decorations to masters like Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto. No less than forty ceilings were omposed by Rubens, and painted under his direction in the space of two years. All were destroyed by the fire in 1718. Sketches in watercolour are taken some time before the disaster by De Wit, and from these were made the etchings by Punt which alone enable us to form a judgment of the grandiose undertaking. In the Madrid Gallery we find a general view of the church in all its spendour. The present church of St Charles in Antwerp is, externally, with some alteration, the building here alluded to.

Rubens delighted in undertakings of the vastest kind. "The larger size of a picture," he writes to W. Trumbull in 1621, "gives as 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." The correctness of this appreciation he was very soon called upon the demonstrate most strikingly by a series of twenty four picture, illustrating the life of Mary de’ Medici, queen-mother of France. The gallery at the Luxembourg Palace, which this paintings once adorned, has long since disappeared, and the complete work is now exhibited in the Louvre. Drawings, it seems, had been asked from Quentin Varin, the French master who incited Poussin to become the painter, but Rubens was ultimately preferred. This preference may in some degree be ascribed to his former connexion with the court of Mantua, Mary de’ Medici and the duchess of Gonzaga being sisters. The story of Mary de’ Medici may be regarded a poem in painting, and no person conversant with the literature of the time can fail to recognize that the strange mixture of the sacred and the mythological in which the most admired authors of the 17th century, beginning with Malherbe, delight. Absolutely speaking, Mrs Jameson may be rightin critizing Ruben’s "coarse allegories, historical improprieties, &c."; but a man belongs to his time, and uses its language in order make himself understood. From the cradle to the day of her reconciliation with Louis XIII., we follow Mary de’ Medici after the manner in which it was customary in those days to consider personages of superior rank. The Fates for here have spun the silken and golden thread; Juno watches over her birth and intrusts here to the town of Florence; Minerva, the Graces, and Apollo take charge of her education; Love exhibits her image to the king, and Neptune conveys her across the seas; Justice, Health, and Plenty endow her son; Prudence and Generosity are at her sides during the regency; and when she resigns the helm of the state to the prince, Justice, Strength, Religion, and Fidelity hold the oars. The sketches of all this paintings- now in the Munich Gallery- were painted in Antwerp, a numerous staff of distinguished collaborators being intrusted with the final execution. But the master him self spent much time in Paris, retouching the whole work, which was completed within less than four years. On May 13, 1625, Rubens writes from Paris to his friend Peiresc that both the queen and her son are highly satisfied with his paintings, and the Louis XIII. came on purpose to the Luxembourg, "where he never has set foot since the palace was begun sixteen or eighteen years ago." We also gather from this letter that the picture representing the Felicity of the Regency was painted to replace another, the Departure of the Queen, which had caused some offence. "If I had been let alone," he says, "the other subject would have been better accepted by the court, and without scandal or murmur." "And I fear" he adds, "far greater difficulties will be found with the subjects of the next gallery." Richelieu gave him self some trouble to get this part of the work, intended to represent the life of Henry IV., bestowed upon Cavalier d’ Arpina, but did not succeed in his endeavours. The queen’s exile, however, prevented the undertaking from going beyond a few sketches, and two or three panels, one of which, the Triumph of Henry IV., now in the Palazzo Pitti, is one of the noblest works of Rubens or of any master. Most undoubtedly the painter here calls to his aid his vivid recollections of the Triumph of Caesar by Mantegna, now at Hampton Court, but in his day adoring the palace at Mantua; of this he made a copy, inscribed No. 315 in the catalogue of his effects sold in 1640, now in the National Gallery.

On the 11th of May 1625 Rubens as present at the nuptial of Henrietta Maria at Notre Dame at Paris, when the scaffolding on which he stood gave way, and he tells us he was just able to catch an adjoining tribune.

No painter in Europe could now pretend to equal Rubens either in talent or in renown. Month after month productions of amazing size left the Antwerp studio; and to those unacquainted with the master’s pictures magnificent engraving by Vorsterman, Pontius, and others had conveyed singularly striking interpretations. ‘What ever work of his I may require," writes Moretus, the celebrate Antwerp printer, "I have to ask him six months before, so as that he man think of it at leisure, and do the work on Sundays or holidays; no week days of his could I pretend to get under a hundred florins."

Of the numerous creations of his pencil, none, perhaps, will more thoroughly disclose to us his comprehension of the religious decorative art than the Assumption of the Virgin at the high altar of the Antwerp cathedral, finished in 1625. It is, of twenty repetitions of this subject the only example still preserved at the place it was intended by the painter to occupy. In spirit we are here reminded of Titian’s Assunts in the cathedral in Verona, but Ruben’s proves perhaps a higher conception of the subject. The work is seen a considerable way off, and every outline is bathed in light, so that the Virgin is elevated to dazzling glory with a power of ascension, scarcely, if ever, attained by any master.

Able to rely so greatly on his power as a colourist, Rubens is not a mere decorator. He penetrates into the spirits of his subjects more deeply than, at first sight, seems consistent with his prodigious facility in execution. The Massacre of the innocents, in the Munich Gallery, is a composition that can leave no person unmoved, - mothers defending their children with nails and teeth. If Mrs Jameson terms this picture atrocious, it ought to be recollected how atrocious is the subject. When St Francis attempts to shelter the universe from the Saviour’s wrath ( Brussels Gallery), Rubens, drawing his inspiration from a passage of St Germain, "Ostendit mater filio pectus et ubera," recalls to our memory that most dramatic passage of the Iliad when Hecuba, from the walls of Troy, entreats her son Hector to spare his life. The subject is inconsistent with the spirit of Christianity, says Waagen, evidently forgetting to the Catholic eyes nothing could be more impressive that the Virgin’s intervention at this supreme moment, when Christ, like another Jupiter, brandishes his thunderbolt against mankind. Rubens was the man of his time; his studies of Italian art inno way led him back t the Quattrocentisti nor the Raffaeleschi; their power was at the end. The influence of Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, more especially Baroccio, Polydoro, and even Parmigiano, is no less visible with him than with those master who, like Spranger, Chr. Schwartz, and Goltzius, stood high in the public estimation immediately before his advent.

In the midst of the rarest activity as a painter, Rubens was now called upon to give proofs of a very different kind of ability. The truce conclded between Spain and the Netherlands in 1609 ended in 1621; archduke Albert died the same year. His widow sincerely wished to prolong the arrangement, still hoping to see the United Province return to the Spanish dominion, and in her eyes Rubens was the fittest person to bring about this conclusion. The painter’s comings and goings, however, did not remain unheeded, for the French ambassador write from Brussels in 1624,-"Rubens is here to take the likeness of the prince of Poland, by the order of the infanta. I am persuaded he will succeed better I this than in his negotiations for the truce." But, if Rubens was to fail in his efforts to bring about an arrangement with the Netherlands, other events enable him to render great service to the state.

Rubens and Buckingham met in Paris in 1625; a correspondence of some importance had beengoing on between the painter and the Brussels court, and before long it was proposed that he should endeavour to bring about a final arrangement between the crowns of England and Spain. The infanta willingly consented, and King Philip, who much objected to the interference of an artist, gave way on hearing, through his aunt, that the negotiator on the English side, B. Gerbier-a Fleming by birth-was likewise a painter. Rubens and Gerbier very soon met in Holland. "Rubens is come hither to Holland, where he now is, and Gerbier in his company, walking from town to town, upon their pretence of pictures," writes Sir Dudley Carleton to Lord Conway in July 1627, "which may serve him for a few days if he dispatch and be gone; but yf he entertayne tyme herel long, he will infallibly be layd hold of, or sent with disgrace out of the country…. This I have made known to Rubens least he should met with a skorne what may in some sort reflect upon others." Matters, however, went on very well, and Ruben volunteered to go to Spain and lay before the council the result of his negotiations (1628). Nine month were thus spent at Madrid; they rank among the most important in Ruben’s career. He had brought with him eight pictures of various sizes and subjects as presents from the infanta, and he was also commissioned to take several portraits of the king royal family. An equestrian of Philip IV., destroyed by the fire in last century, became the subject of the poem by Lope de Vega, and the description enables us to identify the composition with that of the painting now in the Palazzo Pitti, ascribed to Velazquez.

Through a letter to Peiresc we hear of the familiar intercourse kept up between the painter and the king. Philip delighted to see Rubens at work in the studio prepared for him in the palace, where he not only left many original pictures, but copied for his own pleasure and profit the best of Titian’s. No less than forty works were thus produced,and, says the author of the Annals of the Artist of Spain, "the unwearied activity of his well-stored mind is exemplified by the fact that amind his many occupations he was seeking in the libraries materials for an edition of Marcus Aurelius, on which his friend Gaspard Gevaerts was then engaged." An artistc event of some importance connected with the sojourn n Spain is the meeting of Rubens and Velazquez, to the delight, and we venture to add, advantage of both.





Great as was the king’s admiration of Rubens a painter, it seems to have been scarcely above the value attached to his political services. Far from looking upon Rubens as a man of inferior calling, unworthy to meddle with the matters of state, he now commissioned the painter to go to London as bearer of his views to Charles I. giving up his long cherished hope of revisiting Italy on his return from Spain, Rubens, honoured with the title of secretary of the king’s privy council in Netherlands, started at once on his new mission. Although he stooped but four days in Antwerp, he arrived in London just as peace had been concluded with Franc. In this conjuncture of affairs, it can hardly be doubted that the eminent position of Rubens as a painter greatly contributed to his ultimate success as an envoy. Received by Charles with genuine pleasure, he very soon was able to ingratiate him self so far as to induce the king to pledge his royal word to take part n no undertakings against Spain so long as the negotiations remained unconcluded, and all the subsequent endeavours of France, Venice, and the States found him immovable in this resolution. Although the privy council in Madrid, as well the might, passed several votes of thanks to Rubens, the tardiness of the Spanish court in sending a regular ambassador involves the unfortunate painter in distressing anxieties, and the tone of his dispatches is very bitter. But he speaks with the greatest admiration of England and the English, regretting that he should only have come to know the country so late. His popularity must have been very great, for on September 23, 1629, the university of Cambridge conferred upon him the honorary degree of master of arts, and on February 21, 1630, he was knighted, the king presenting him with the sword used at the ceremony, which is still preserved by the descendants of the artist.

When the council at Madrid had to deliberate as to recognition of the title conferred upon Rubens in England, they remembered that Titian had been made a knight by the emperor Charles V., and the matter was settled without difficulty; but, the painter’s name having been mentioned as a possible envoy to the British court, Olivares objected that it was quite out of the question to make an ambassador of one who lived by the work of his hands.

Although, it seems, less actively employed as an artist in England than in Spain, Rubens, besides his sketches for the decoration of the Banqueting House at Whitehall, painted the admirable picture of the Blessings of Peace, now in the National Gallery. There is no reason to doubt, with Smith, that "His Majesty sat to him for his portrait, yet it is not a little remarkable that no notice occurs in any of the royal catalogues, or the writers of the period, of the existence of such a portrait." While in England, Rubens very narrowly escaped drowning while going to Greenwich in a boat. The fact is reported by Lord Dorchester in a letter to Sir Isaac Wake (Sainsbury, cxvi). At the beginning of March the painter’s mission came to close.

Rubens was now fifty-three years old of age; he had been four years a widower, and before the end of the year (December 1630) he entered into a second marriage with the beautiful girl of sixteen, named Helena Flourment, with whom his pictures have made the world so well acquainted. More than twenty portraits of her are described by Smith, and she also figures in perhaps twice as many of the master’s creations. Whether Rubens was more powerfully led in the choice of his second wife by her personal beauty or by strength of a certain resemblance o hid feminine ideal is questionable. Anyhow, she was an admirable model, and none of her husband’s works may be more justly termed masterpiece that those in which she is represented (Munich, St Petersburg, Blenheim, Liechtenstein, the Louvre, &c.).

Although the long months of absence could not be termed blanks in Rubens’s artistic career, his return was followed by an almost incredible activity. Inspired more followed by the glorious works of Titian, he now produced some of his best creations. Brightness in couloring, breadth of touch and pictorial conception, are specially striking in those works we know to have been painted in the latter part of his life time. Could anything give a higher degree of Rubens’s genius than, for example, the Feast of Venus, the portrait of Helena Flourment ready to enter the bath, or the St Ildefonso. This last picture now, as well as the two others just alluded to, in the Vienna Gallery-was painted for the church of the convent of St Jacques, in Brussels. On the wings are represented the archdukes in royal attire, under the protection of their patron saints. The presence of these figures had led to some mistake regarding the date of the production, but it has been proved beyond doubt, through a document publish by Mr Castan (1884), that the St Ildefonso belongs to the series of works executed after the journeys to Spain and England. Archduke Albert had been dead ten ears. The picture was engraved by Witdoeck in 1638.

Isabella died in 1633, and we know that to the end Rubens remained in high favour with her, alike as an artist and as a political agent. The painter was even one of the gentlemen she deputed to meet Mary de’ Medici at the frontier in 1631, after her escape from France.

Spain and Netherlands went to war again, the king never ceasing to look upon the Dutch as rebels. The subject need not be dwelt upon; suffice it to say that much useless trouble and suspicion came upon-the great artist. Henry of Orange, whom he is known to have interviewed, nothing as yet has been discovered.

Ferdinand of Austria, the cardinal-infant of Spain, was called to the government of the Netherlands on the death of his aunt. He was the king’s younger brother, and arrived at Antwerp in May 1635. the streets had been decorated with triumphal arches and "spectacular," arranged by Rubens, ad certainly never equaled by any other works of the kind.1 several of the paintings detached from the arches were offered as presents to the new governor-genera, scarcely known fact, which accounts for the presence of many of these works in public galleries (Vienna, Dresden, Brussels, &c.). Rubens was at the time laid up with gout, but Prince Ferdinand was desirous of expressing his satisfaction, and called upon the painter, remaining a long time at his house. Rubens and Ferdinand had met at Madrid, and only a short time elapsed before the painter was confirmed in his official standing,-a matter of a small importance, if we consider that the last year of his life were almost exclusively employed in working much more for the king than for his brother. About a hundred and twenty paintings of considerable size left Antwerp for Madrid in 1637, 1638, and 1339; they were intended to decorate the pavilion erected at the Pardo, and known under the name of Torre de la Parada. Another series had been begun, when Ferdinand wrote to Madrid that the painter was no more, and Jordaens would finish the work. Rubens breathed his last on the 30th of May 1640.

More fortunate than many artists, Rubens left the world in the midst of his glory. Not the remotest trace of approaching old age, not the slightest failing of mind or skill, can be detected even in his latest works, such as the Martyrdom of St Peter at Cologne, the Martyrdom of St Thomas at Prague, or the Judgment of Paris at Madrid, where his young wife appears for the last time. "She is the handsomest person in Antwerp," writes Ferdinand to his brother, in announcing the completion of what the terms "the best painting Rubens has done."

If Rubens something of a diplomatist, it cannot be denied that alike in body as in mind he is portrayed in his own works with utmost straightforwardness. His productions are what they are, as if they could not have been otherwise, and the fact is that, in reply to any observations he may happen to receive, we constantly find him asserting the necessities of his subjects, thus confirming a remark made by Sir Joshua Reynolds that his subjects always seem to suit his style.

Rubens is so well known that it hardly seems necessary to dwell upon his outward appearance. From his own letters and those in which he is referred to we become acquainted with a man of vast erudition, great good sense, dignity, and kindness, none more worthy of being called a gentleman; and Sir Dudley Carleton, we know, termed him not only the prince of painter but of gentleman.

Those with whom he dealt in questions of learning proclaim his artistic excellence, to be second only to his other qualifications, and even such critics as Winckelmann, who are least likely to sympathize with his style, do homage to his superior genius. "Rubens," he writes to Count Cobenzl, "is the glory of art, of his school, of his country, and of all coming centuries; the fertility of his imagination cannot be overrate; he is correct in his design, magnificent in his drapery; and he must be looked upon as the great model for chiaroscuro, although in this branch he may e termed fanciful, but he has not sacrificed to the goddesses of beauty (Horae) and the Graces."

Rubens, indeed, although his type of feminine beauty is generally most pleasing, has little of the Italian grace and refinement, but then he was Fleming throughout, notwithstanding his frequent recollections of those Italian masters whom he most admired, and who themselves have little, if anything, in common with Raphael. But it must be borne in mind how completely his predecessors were frozen into stiffness through Italianization, and how necessary it was to bring back the Flemish school to life and nature. Critics have spoken of Rubens’s historical properties. Of course nobody could suppose that his classical learning did not go far enough to know that the heroines of the Old Testament or of Roman history were not dressed out as ladies of his time; but I this respect he only follows the example of Titian, Paul Veronese, and many others. In not other school do we find these animated hunts of lions, tigers, and even hippopotamus and the crocodile, which may be reckoned among the finest specimens of art, and here again are life and nature displayed with the utmost power. "His horses are perfect in their kind," says Reynolds; his dogs are of the strong Flemish breed, and his landscapes the most charming pictures of Brabantine scenery, in the midst of which lay his seat of Steen. As a portrait painter, although less refined than Van Dyck, he shows that eminent master the way, and his pure fancy subjects, as the Garden of Love (Madrid and Dresden) and the village Feast (Louvre), have never been equaled. As Mrs Jameson so justly remarks, "Rubens is the most popular because the most intelligible of painters."

For nearly one hundred years the Flemish school maybe be said to have been but a reflexion of the Rubenesque principles. Although Jordaens and Erasmus Quellin lived till 1678, the school might be termed a body without soul.

Some etchings has been ascribed to Rubens, but except a head of Seneca, the only copy of which is in the Print Room at the British Museum, and a beautiful figure of St Catherine, we can admit none of the other plates, said to proceed from Rubens, as authentic. Rubens nevertheless exercised an immense influence on the art of engraving. Under his direct guidance Southman, Vorsterman, Pontius,Witdoeck, the two Bolswerts, Peter de Jode, N. Lauwers, and many others of less note left an immense number of beautiful plates, reproducing the most celebrated of his paintings. To give an idea of what his influence was capable of accomplishing, pictorially speaking, it might be sufficient to notice the transformation undergone by the Antwerp school of engraving under Rubens; even the modern school of engraving, in more than one respect, is a continuation of the style first practiced in Antwerp. His influence is scarcely less apparent in sculpture, and the celebrated Luke Fayd’herbe was his pupil.

Neither in name nor in fact did the Flemish school ever find a second Rubens. None of his four sons became painter, nor did any of his three daughters marry an artist. According to Rubens’s will, his drawings were to belong to that one of his sons who might become a painter, or in the event of one of his daughters marrying a celebrated artist they were to be her portion. The valuable collection was dispersed only in 1659, and of the pictures sold in 1640 thirty-two became the property of the king of Spain. The Madrid Gallery alone possesses a hundred of his works. Four years after her husband’s death Helena Fourment married J. B. Van Brouckhoven de Bergheyck, knight of St James, member of the privy council, &c. She died in 1673. In 1746 the male line of Rubens’s descendants was completely extinct. In the female line more than a hundred families of name in Europe trace their descent from him.

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 works. J. Smith’s Catalogue gives descriptions of more than thirteen hundred compositions. (H. H.)


See also Flemish School of Painting.



The above article was written by: Henri-Simon Hymans, Belgian art critic; Keeper of the Department of Engravings, Charts and Plans in the Royal Library at Brussels, 1887; Prof. of Aesthetics athe Antwerp Academy, 1869; author of Rubens, sa Vie et son Oeuvre.



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