The Artist Peter Paul Rubens

Born in 1577 in Siegen, Wesphalia, the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens was a master painter of the Baroque style and an influential figure of his time. Although Rubens is best known today for his contributions to art, he was also a diplomat knighted by Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain, a classically-trained scholar and humanist, and a collector or art. His sensual paintings are revered for their use of color and movement. He often depicted scenes from history that were allegorical or depicted mythological subject matter.

Religion figured heavily into Rubens’s childhood and, as a consequence, his beliefs played a major role in his career as a leader of the Catholic Counter-Reformation style of painting. Rubens’s father was a Calvinist and his family was forced to flee Antwerp in 1568 because Protestants were being persecuted. After his father’s death in 1587, Rubens returned to Antwerp with his mother to be raised Catholic; he also studied both literature and Latin and began his art training at the age of fourteen entering the Guild of St. Luke in 1598 after he had mastered his art.

Rubens traveled to Italy in 1600 where he was influenced by such painters as Caravaggio. In 1603 he traveled to Spain where he would paint the Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma that same year. The following year he returned to Italy and would settle mainly in Rome until 1608. During these years he painted such masterpieces as Marchesa Brigida Spinola-Doria and The Virgin and Child Adored by Angels (1608). Rubens loved Italy, but returned to Antwerp in 1608 upon hearing word that his mother was ill; she died before he could reach her. Upon his return to the city, however, Rubens accepted an appointment as court painter to Albert VII, Archduke of Austria and Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain who governed the Low Countries.

Rubens was greatly favored by the Archduchess Isabella and often served as a diplomat and ambassador for her until she died in 1633. In 1609 Rubens married Isabella Brant who was the daughter of the prominent humanist Jan Brant. They had three children together. After his marriage, Rubens was allowed to set up his studio in Antwerp instead of the Brussels-based court and led various students and assistants; his most famous student was Anthony van Dyck. Works such as The Raising of the Cross (1610) cemented Rubens’s fame as Flanders’s most illustrious painter. Rubens garnered continued success after he was commissioned by Marie de Medici, Queen of France, in 1621 to paint allegorical cycles celebrating her reign and was again requested to participate in diplomatic missions to both England and Spain.

After the death of his first wife four years earlier, Rubens married his second wife, Helene Fourment, who was the inspiration for such paintings as The Feast of Venus (c.1630s) and The Judgment of Paris (1636). This marriage produced five children. Rubens died in 1640. He is revered for his portraits and history paintings. His paintings of voluptuous women also famously gave rise to the term Rubenesque. Rubens is considered one of the great masters of Western Art and inspired later artists like Eugene Delacroix and Antoine Watteau.