Peter Paul Rubens was born in Siegen, Germany, on 28 June 1577. His parents were the lawyer Jan Rubens and Maria Pijpelincx.1 Jan had also been an alderman of Antwerp, but fearing reprisal for his religious tolerance during the Beeldenstorm (Iconoclastic Fury), he fled in 1568 and took refuge with his family in Cologne. There he was the personal secretary of William of Orange’s consort, Anna of Saxony, with whom he had an affair. When the liaison came to light, Jan was banished to prison for some years. Shortly after his death in 1587, his widow returned with her children to Antwerp.
Rubens’s study at the Latin school in Antwerp laid the foundations for his later status as a pictor doctus, an educated humanist artist who displayed his erudition not with a pen, but with a paintbrush. He derived his understanding of classical antiquity and literature in part from the ideas of Justus Lipsius (1547–1606), an influential Dutch philologist and humanist.2 Lipsius’s Christian interpretation of stoicism was a particularly significant source of inspiration for the artist.3 Rubens’s older brother Filips (1574–1611) had heard Lipsius lecture in Leuven and was part of his circle of friends, as was Peter Paul, who continued to correspond with one another even after the scholar’s death. Although Rubens may not actually have met Lipsius, he did portray himself with his brother and the humanist two times in friendship portraits, the second one made shortly after Filips’s death in 1611.4
After his school years, Rubens served for some time as a page to the Comtesse de Ligne, an appointment he doubtless owed to his father’s previous aristocratic relationships. As a page, Rubens mastered court etiquette and developed his celebrated knowledge of languages, skills that would serve him well later when he was a European diplomat. His artistic education also began around this time. He studied with diverse masters, including Tobias Verhaecht (1561–1631), Adam van Noort (1561–1641), and Otto van Veen (1556–1629),5 and upon completing his training he joined the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke in 1598.
Rubens did not stay in Antwerp for long; he set off for Italy on 9 May 1600, entering the service of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua. He would serve the duke for eight years, spending most of his time in Genoa and Rome. In 1603 Gonzaga sent Rubens on a mission to Spain, where he received several significant commissions at the court of Philip III. He sojourned in Rome between 1606 and 1608, working with great diligence on the most prestigious commission of his day, namely the high altar of the Chiesa Nuova.6
In 1608, upon learning that his mother was dying, Rubens returned to Antwerp, but arrived too late.7 He did not return to Italy, but settled permanently in the city on the Scheldt River, leaving only temporarily when he was called away for diplomatic missions and foreign commissions. Rubens no doubt was drawn to Antwerp because of the good prospects it offered. In the decades following the Fall of Antwerp in 1585, the city’s churches began to commission works of art again.8 Moreover, Rubens’s return coincided with the beginning, in 1609, of the Twelve Year Truce with Spain, which marked a new period of economic growth that stimulated the city council and other local institutions, as well as the urban elite, to grant countless commissions to artists. The Brussels court, too, took notice of Rubens’s great talent. In 1609 he was appointed court painter to Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, the Spanish governors of the Netherlands; they allowed him to continue living in Antwerp, an unprecedented privilege evidencing the great respect and social status he had acquired by this time. On 3 October 1609 Rubens married Isabella Brant (1591–1626), whose father, Jan Brant, was a city secretary. One year later he bought the property on the Wapper, on which he built, between 1611 and 1615, his stately and still extant house, fitting out one wing as his workshop.
Interest in Rubens in the Northern Netherlands bore no relation to that in his own country. The Dutch Republic hardly figured in Rubens’s ever-full order book. After Calvinism became the official religion there, the church fell away as the most important patron of artists, and the war between the Republic in the north and the Spanish-controlled southern states meant that the stadholder and his court had rather more pressing concerns than decorating their residences. Moreover, the war impeded normal contact between the two countries, and Rubens was suspect because of his official diplomatic work in the service of the Spanish crown. Still, there were confreres and art lovers in the Northern Netherlands who were familiar with his work. For instance, Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687) expressed his great appreciation for Rubens, calling him “the Apelles of our time,” referring to the highly praised Greek painter of antiquity.9 Prince Frederik Hendrik was another admirer, as is testified to by several splendid pictures by Rubens in his collection from around 1632.10 Telling in this respect is that only one of the works was ordered directly from Rubens: a painted portrait bust of Emperor Julius Caesar.11 It may have been part of a series of twelve portraits of emperors that either Frederik Hendrik or his predecessor Maurits commissioned from various artists between 1619 and 1625, including Rubens and the Utrecht painters Abraham Bloemaert (1566–1651) and Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588–1629).12 In the case of Rubens, Sir Dudley Carleton, the English ambassador to The Hague and Rubens’s acting manager, may well have played a mediating role. In 1618 Rubens had acquired Carleton’s vast collection of ancient sculpture in exchange for nine paintings and a set of tapestries valued at 6,000 guilders. The middleman for this transaction was the Haarlem painter Frans Pietersz de Grebber (1572/73–1649).13 De Grebber and Rubens likely met in June 1612, when Rubens made a brief trip to the Northern Netherlands, visiting Haarlem and also friends in Leiden.14 Rubens would return briefly to the Republic on two other occasions. In 1627, at the end of a diplomatic mission in The Hague, he spent a few days meeting fellow painters in Utrecht and elsewhere.15 In the Republic, Rubens’s work was known chiefly through prints that were initially produced and printed there.16
Though he was not engaged to paint significant commissions in the Republic, neither he nor his workshop was at a loss for work. For example, in 1620 his workshop produced two altarpieces and at least thirty-nine ceiling paintings for the Jesuit church in Antwerp.17 Rubens also worked for art dealers who, in addition to authentic work by him, also purchased countless replicas and copies by his assistants.18 Rubens, moreover, profited on two counts from his position as court painter. First, he received numerous prestigious commissions from the archduke and archduchess; primarily after 1621, Rubens painted some of his most sublime works for Isabella. Second, he benefitted immensely from Isabella’s sphere of influence and the many diplomatic missions he led on her behalf, which brought him into contact with the most important European rulers and their entourages. In Paris in 1623 he signed a contract to paint a grand allegorical series glorifying the lives of Marie de’ Medici and King Henry IV in the Palais du Luxembourg.19 In 1628 he spent seven months at the Spanish court in Madrid; though officially on a diplomatic mission, in between the meetings he visited the royal collection to copy works by Titian and also painted an equestrian portrait of King Philip IV. Diplomacy took him to London from May 1629 to March 1630 as part of peace negotiations, during which time he also worked on designs for the ceiling decorations of the Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace.20 Still, it was primarily Rubens’s diplomatic work that induced Charles I to knight him upon the successful completion of the talks. Soon thereafter, political intrigue endangered Rubens’s position as a diplomat and he abandoned this career in 1633. Nevertheless, foreign rulers continued to engage his services as a painter. In November 1636 Rubens began working on decorations for the Torre de la Parada, Philip IV’s hunting lodge, for which 112 paintings arrived in Madrid on 1 May 1638.21
Four years after the death of Isabella Brant on 6 December 1630, Rubens took a second wife, the sixteen-year-old Helena Fourment. Her father was a tapestry dealer for whom he had recently designed his celebrated Life of Achilles series.22 In the spring of 1635 Rubens worked on the decorations for the Blijde Inkomste, or Triumphal Entry, into Antwerp of Isabella’s successor, Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand, who would appoint him court painter a year later.23 Rubens spent his final years on his estate of Elewijt, near Mechelen, painting mostly relatively small landscapes. He suffered greatly from gout, and his health deteriorated to the point where he ultimately lost the use of his hands. His death in Antwerp on 30 May 1640 marked the end of a life during which Rubens had excelled in so many areas. His friend Ambrogio Spinola, marquis of Los Balbases (1569–1630), considered that painting should be appreciated as the least of Rubens’s many talents; although such a view has a grain of truth, it is one with which few would agree today.