Flemish artist Frans Pourbus the Younger was a trailblazing portraitist of the 17th century. Working in numerous royal courts and touting the patronage of wealthy clients, Pourbus elegantly elevated and emphasised the grandeur and power of his sitters, as well as capturing their personality with striking realism.
Pourbus was born into a family of artistic enterprise. Both his father, Frans Pourbus the Elder ( 1545-1581), and his grandfather, Pieter Pourbus (1523/4-1584), were artists before him and saw great success in their time as portrait and history painters. Both men would offer their expertise in the training of Pourbus the Younger. It seems likely that Pourbus’ grandfather would have proved the greater influence, for his father died when he was only 12.
Pourbus was to continue his studies after a move to Antwerp. Here, he might have possibly obtained training from Otto van Veen (1556-1629). Van Veen owned a studio in the city and would also act as an instructor to Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Clearly, Pourbus was receiving the highest quality of tutelage to be found in the Low Countries.
After completing his studies in 1591, Pourbus became a member of the prominent Guild of Saint Luke. This was an appointment that enabled him to work professionally as an artist, and indeed, from his time onward, Pourbus began courting the interests of many a rich patron seeking his work.
His first prominent clients were the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, Duke Albert and the Infanta Isabella. For a period of four years, he worked as court painter to the royal couple, before attracting the interest of Italian Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua.
Thus began a period of nine years under the patronage of the duke. Such a long period of tenure suggests a good relationship between artist and patron, as do the letters which survive between the two men. Nonetheless, greater things were calling.
Having established for himself a prestigious reputation, Pourbus caught the eye of one of the great personalities in 17th century Europe, Marie de’ Medici, Queen of Spain and Navarre. The queen enticed him to France with a position as the royal court painter. Such an eminent honour could not be passed up, and Pourbus found himself creating portraits of some of the most illustrious and important people in Europe.
What was it about Pourbus’ paintings that made them so appealing? By his time, portraiture had become a key tool for the European courts to make a statement about their power and prestige. It was crucial for European rulers to have themselves and their families depicted in portraits which showed off their wealth and status.
Artists like Pourbus had to include certain elements which attended to this need. Fashionable clothing and glistening jewels had to be luxuriously rendered. Posture and poses, too, were important, saying much about a person’s deportment, their refinement.
Another important facet was individualism. A sitter must be shown as a unique individual, even whilst representing something far larger than themselves. Physical attributes were a necessity in some cases, for example, portraits used in the brokering of a marriage between two families. A likeness could offer a glimpse at the prospective bride or groom.
Psychological representation was also important. Leaders must not appear drowned in the grandness afforded by their position. Instead, they should appear as the embodiment of such majesty and power. They should be intelligent, intriguing, and offer a glimpse at their thoughts through gleaming eyes. In all, a portrait painter had to offer a window into the soul surrounded by the gilded gold of the European courts.
Safe to say, Pourbus was a master at his craft. The Infanta Isabella is bedecked in a glorious dress of sleek silk and blazing, golden thread. Pearls and jewels hang from her neck, and Pourbus emphasises the lacework of her cuffs and ruff to say much about the splendour and cost of her ensemble.
The Duke of Mantua is presented as a pensive yet authoritative leader. His eyes are bright with thought, his expression composed. Marie de’ Medici is afforded the same treatment. Her eyes seem knowing as she poses straight-backed, the master of the majesty in which she is bedecked and bejewelled.
Pourbus was extremely skilled in delivering a realism which represented not only the grandeur and spectacle required but psychological depth and individual character. Indeed, he was one of the influential artists of the 17th century to develop this psychological verve in portrait paintings, taking inspiration from the earlier example of Anthonis Mor (c.1517-1577), and pre-empting the works of the other greats of his time, such as Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).
Pourbus’ influence was also spread directly to the number of students that he took on, such as Justus Sustermans (1597-1681) and Louis Beaubrun.
It was upon his return to Antwerp in 1622 that Frans Pourbus the Younger would die unexpectedly. In a world which relied heavily on artists to deliver images of eminence and power, the European courts had lost a vital tool in their arsenal. But Pourbus’ legacy would live on through the influence he had wrought over 17th-century portrait painting.
Today, Pourbus’ works can be seen in many national collections across Europe, including the Royal Collection in Britain, the Louvre in Paris, and the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands.
Born in Antwerp, Belgium.
Completed apprenticeship in Antwerp, Belgium. Became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, Belgium.
Appointed court painter to Archduke Albert and Infanta Isabella in Brussels, Belgium.
Appointed court painter to Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua.
Moved to Turin, Italy.
Travelled to Naples, Italy.
Moved to Paris, France. Appointed court painter to Marie de' Medici, Queen of France and Navarre.
Appointed court painter to King Louis XIII of France.
Died in Paris, France.