Rubens, Peter Paul (1577-1640)

Rubens, Peter Paul (1577-1640)
Rubens, Peter Paul (1577-1640)

Early Life

Peter Paul Rubens is one of the defining artists of the Baroque style. His beautifully coloured and dramatically rendered works proved incredibly popular and influential across Europe in his time, as was Rubens himself.

Rubens was born in Westphalia, Germany, but during his youth his family would move to Antwerp, at the time part of the Spanish Netherlands. It was here that Rubens would begin to pursue a career in the arts. He received training from three artists: Tobias Verhaecht (1561-1631), Adam van Noort (1561/1562-1641), and Otto van Veen (1556-1629). Van Veen would prove, in particular, a strong influence on the young Rubens. The younger shared the elder’s interest in the classical world and learning from works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Rubens educated himself not only artistically, but also intellectually, learning Latin and devouring a great number of classical texts.

The Making of a Great Artist

After completing his studies with van Veen, Rubens would travel to Italy, keen to admire the classical works of sculpture, immerse himself in the land of a fallen empire. He would also make studies from the works of Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo. These two sources of inspiration and interest, which Rubens continuously cultivated throughout his life, would influence Rubens’ works greatly, as we shall see.

Soon after his Italian travels, Rubens became employed as court painter to the Duke of Mantua, Vincenzo Conzago. This afforded him travel to Spain and offered him his first experience of a diplomatic mission, something to which, in time, he would become incredibly familiar.

Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1608 and was appointed court painter to rulers of the Spanish Netherlands Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella. It was during this time that Rubens could finally settle enough to begin to truly establish himself as an artist. He could afford to build himself a great large house and painting studio in the fashionable part of the city, and, being part of the Antwerp Painters’ Guild, he could paint and trade professionally. He could also raise his family with his much-beloved wife, Isabella Brant.

Rubens’ style was so appealing as it displayed both a masterly skill for the craft of painting, learnt from the Renaissance masters he so coveted, as well as an intellectual zeal drawn from his knowledge of the classical world. He created dozens and dozens of sketches as studies and preparatory works, taking after his Renaissance predecessors. His works were sophisticated, yet with enough passion as to be incredibly compelling. Strong colour, dramatic poses, clear and coherent allegory, all combined with his perfect execution. His works represent everything that a baroque piece of art should be.

Not only was Rubens’ skill the reason for his success, but in his context, his works were incredibly appealing. Following the Protestant Reformation which had swept Europe, the Catholic Counter-Reformation was attempting to right the perceived wrongs they saw in the state of art. It had lost its way, they believed, forgotten to place the teachings of the life of Christ at the centre of works. Meanings could be easily lost without clear allegory, handled through the composition and the posing of figures. Rubens’ baroque art, with its clear composition, posturing, and point, greatly pleased Catholics.

As well as a religious zeal, within the upper-class circles of nobility and royalty, there was also a passion for paintings of a different kind. These clients desired portraits of themselves both flattering and exalting. Rubens’ manner, in which he makes skin appear ethereal and buttery, greatly appealed to their vanities. His sumptuously saturated colouring also proved ideal for the richness of their gowns and garbs.

These posh patrons also desired larger works of art that could either be hung in their great palaces and homes or became part of the residence itself, such as a painted ceiling or fresco. Rubens was skilled in combining scenes with a multitude of figures with a composition which prevented overcrowding and retained a clear message throughout the work. Scenes depicting the life of loved ones, mythological tales, religious teachings, were all popular paintings for which Rubens found a lot of trade and a lot of praise. Their richness of storytelling and colour, with Rubens’ dramatically posed nude figures drawing inspiration from the classical world, seemed the height of art. They were both intellectually and artistically satisfying.

Whilst in Antwerp, Rubens completed a multitude of altarpieces, commissioned by a myriad of churches across the city. At the same time, he delivered the works much desired by Archduke Albert and Isabella. By 1620, his reputation as an artist was well and truly established, and his client list would only expand further.
Artist and Agent

During the 1620s, Rubens received a great many royal commissions from across Europe. Marie de’Medici, Queen of France and widow to King Henry IV, ordered from Rubens a gallery of scenes to celebrate her husband’s life. Whilst he completed one set, unfortunately the whole collection was never finished, owing to Marie being exiled from the French court.

King Charles I of England was also a client, commissioning Rubens to paint the ceiling of his new Banqueting House in Whitehall, London. This was not the first time Rubens had received work from an English patron. Indeed, he had befriended a number of nobles when they had been on visits to the Low Countries. Men such as Sir Dudley Carleton and Toby Matthew were esteemed admirers of Rubens. Perhaps they helped him procure the King’s commission.

The King desired his ceiling paintings to represent scenes of the life of King James I, presenting him as a peacemaker, unifying England with Scotland. Scholars have made reference to the desire for peace in Rubens’ work as reflecting what was going on in the painter’s head and heart. For Rubens was not on a sojourn to England simply to paint. His painterly position allowed him access to the private places at court, as well as close connections with nobles. This made him the perfect choice for a diplomat.

For both Rubens and the Netherlands, loss had caused instability. Rubens was grief-ridden by the sudden death of his wife and daughter. Archduke Albert would also perish during this time period, leaving his wife Isabella in an incredibly politically fraught position. She employed Rubens to act as an envoy for her with the intention of brokering peace between Spain and England. This would in turn bring peace to the Netherlands.

Rubens travelled first to Spain, where he was greeted kindly by Isabella’s nephew, King Phillip IV. The Spanish king packed him off to England, full of praise and confidence. Rubens’ connections with the courtiers he had previously befriended paid off handsomely. He had also cultivated a friendship with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, whilst in Paris in 1625. A great patron of the arts, as well as a huge political presence, Villiers and the other courtiers paved Rubens’ way to King Charles I.

He elegantly balanced his works of art with his works of armistice, pushing for a truce between England and Spain. Whilst, in the end, Rubens’ efforts led to no end to talks, the manner with which he had carried out his talks, and the glorious beauty of his art, saw him highly praised. He was knighted by King Charles I in 1629, just before he left England to return to Antwerp.

Later Years

The final decade of Rubens’ life was devoted to his art. He found new happiness with a new bride, Helene Fourment. Her youth, she was 37 years his junior, and beauty inspired the voluptuous and radiant depictions of Venus in his later allegorical works.

During this time, Rubens also discovered a fondness for landscape painting. He would often paint the view from his Het Steen estate, settled between Antwerp and Brussels. Nature is painted with just as melodious amounts of drama and composition as his other works. The heavenly blue, ethereal sky is pleasantly balanced against the earthy tones in the foreground, trees brushed with fine and elegant detail. These works would be a great inspiration to the Romantic painters of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Peter Paul Rubens died from gout in 1640. 800 masses were held in and around Antwerp immediately after his death. He is buried in St Jacob’s chapel in Antwerp, in a private funeral chapel.


In his time and to this day, Rubens has remained a great of the art world. Thanks to his many travels during his lifetime, his style and popularity spread. The banner for the baroque style would continue to be carried by the students who had worked in his Antwerp workshop. Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) and Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678) are two famous examples.

Rubens’ name has been and continues to be used to represent certain styles and preferences in art. The ‘Rubenists’ were a group of painters, active in Paris in the late 17th century. They promoted the importance of colour above all else in painting, inspired by Rubens’ vibrant palette. Figures of nude, voluptuous women, with soft curls and buttery skin, are oftentimes described as ‘Rubenesque.’ This word has also found use beyond art.

Today, many of his works are held in the great galleries across the world. This includes the National Gallery in London, the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Rubens remains at the centre of art, and in the years that have succeeded his death, his work has taken a gilded place in the crown of art history.


Born in Siegen, Westphalia, Germany.


Moved to Cologne, Germany.


Moved to Antwerp, Belgium.


Trained with Otto van Veen.


Became a Master in the Antwerp Painters’ Guild.


Travelled to Italy and Spain.


Returned to Antwerp, Belgium.


Married Isabella Brant. Appointed court painter to Archduke Albert and his wife the Infanta Isabella, rulers of the Spanish Netherlands.


Work commissioned by Marie de' Medici, widow to King Henry IV of France.


Raised to the rank of nobility by King Philip IV of Spain.


Travelled to Madrid.


Appointed Rubens secretary of the privy council of the Netherlands by King Phillip IV of Spain. Travelled to England to broker an armistice between Spain and England. Awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Cambridge University.


Knighted by King Charles I of England. Married Helene Fourment.


Died in Antwerp, Belgium.

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