PETER PAUL RUBENS  1577 - 1640  (L1, J1, C1)


Rubens: Self-Portrait – National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus – Alte Pinakothek, Munich; Descent from the Cross – Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp; Portrait of a Boy – Graphics Collection, Albertina, Vienna; Steen Castle – National Gallery, London; Duke of Mantua – Kunsthistorisches, Vienna; Massacre of the Innocents – Art Gallery, Ontario; Lady with Straw Hat – National Gallery, London; Cortona: Rape of the Sabine Women – Capitoline Museums, Rome.


Baroque Art

xxxxxIllustrated here are The Duke of Mantua, Massacre of the Innocents, and the so-named The Straw Hat (possibly a portrait of his second wife’s sister). Among other works for which he is famous are his allegory War and Peace; his Judgement of Paris and Feast of Venus, both very baroque in style; and a series of large, dramatic hunting scenes, painted for the Duke of Bavaria and including the Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt and the Lion Hunt. Inxthe production of these violent paintings he was assisted by the Dutch artist Frans Snyders (1579-1657), the finest animal painter of the day.

xxxxxRubens worked long hours and with speed and dexterity. He perfected his own colour technique by applying his paint in thin layers - thus creating a translucent quality - and his swirling lines gave vitality and emotion to figure and form. And such was the administration and supervision of his busy studio that his assistants - who included Anthony Van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens - produced work which was consistently worthy of their master and required only his finishing touch. His influence on his students was clearly direct, but his style also inspired a vast number of future artists, including the Frenchmen Watteau, David, Géricault, Delacroix and Renoir, the Dutchman Rembrandt, the Spaniard Velasquez, and the Englishmen Gainsborough, Reynolds and Constable. Such a legacy has earned him a central place in the history of Western art. He died from a heart attack in 1640, and was buried in the church of St. James in Antwerp, a city which - due in large part to his artistic contribution - had become one of the cultural capitals of Europe.

xxxxxIncidentally, in his landscape The Harvest Wagon, painted around 1767, the English artist Gainsborough positioned the occupants of the cart so as to resemble the composition of the figures in Rubens' Descent from the Cross. ......

xxxxx...... The breed of toy dog known as Papillon (French for "butterfly") - so-named because its ears resemble the wings of that insect - often featured in the paintings of Rubens, as it did later in the works of Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard. Then regarded as a dwarf spaniel, it was extremely popular as a pet among members of high society, and thus appeared in many family portraits. ……

xxxxx…… In 2002 his Biblical story Massacre of the Innocents was auctioned in London for the record sum of £49.5 million.

xxxxxThe works of the Flemish baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens are full of rich, radiant colours which create a feeling of great energy and zest for life. His output was phenomenal. Over 40 years he and his studio produced more than 2,000 paintings. Most have religious, allegorical or mythological themes, but towards the end of his career he produced scenes of country life, and he was also an accomplished portrait artist with a reputation for his portrayal of tenderness. His The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, painted in 1618, fully captures the essence of his distinctive style, as does his Fall of the Damned. These also include the voluptuous female nudes which are a feature of his work as a leading baroque artist. In the early 1600s he produced some magnificent religious compositions, such as his two altarpieces The Raising of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross in 1611. Among his many patrons were Louis XIII of France, Charles I of England, and Philip IV of Spain. His style influenced many painters throughout Europe. When not painting he often acted as a diplomat, and was sent on a number of missions.

xxxxxA love of rich, radiant colours, a feeling of great energy and power, and a sensuous portrayal of the human form are the hallmarks of the great baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens. Few painters have equalled the sheer visual impact of this brilliant Flemish technician. And his output was phenomenal, making him one of the most prolific painters of all time, and earning him an international reputation by the age of 30. Over a period of some 40 years he and his studio produced more than 2,000 paintings, including many huge compositions. Most of these works depicted religious, allegorical or mythological themes and were painted for churches and palaces throughout Europe. (The painting on the left is a self-portrait.)

xxxxxLater, he went on the produce scenes of country life, and in retirement he painted a number of tranquil, mellow landscapes, including one showing a view of his country estate at his Chateau de Steen. And to these last years of his life belongs a series of classical paintings for Philip IV's hunting lodge near Madrid. He was also an accomplished portrait artist in oil, chalk and crayon, and in this field he is particularly noted for his portrayal of tenderness - as seen in the delightful sketch of his little boy Nicolas (illustrated below). In addition, he and his workshop were responsible for a large number of book illustrations, sketches, etchings and drawings, and it is to Rubens that we owe a fine copy of Leonardo da Vinci's cartoon of the Battle of Anghiari, produced in 1505 and subsequently destroyed.

xxxxxOne of his masterpieces, The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (illustrated), painted in 1618, fully captures the essence of his distinctive style. This work, together with his St. George and the Dragon of 1610, and his Fall of the Damned, completed around 1620, epitomise the vibrant colours, the dynamic composition, and the voluptuous female nudes which make up the vital ingredients of baroque. This art form had already begun to appear in Italy in the works of Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci, but it was Rubens who brought it to Northern Europe and earned for himself the title of the "Creator of Baroque".

xxxxxHe was born in Siegen in Germany, but on the death of his father, a lawyer who had been forced into exile, his mother returned to Antwerp. It was here that he was educated at the Latin School and then spent a short time as a page at the court of the Countess Lalaing. His main interest lay in painting, however, and after studying art, he became a member of the city's Guild of Painters in 1598. Success came with his move to Italy two years later. Here he was court painter to the Duke of Mantua, and quickly gained a reputation for his church paintings and his many portraits of the local nobility.

xxxxxAnd it was while travelling in Italy that the works of Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto in Venice, and those of Michelangelo and Raphael in Rome, had a profound effect upon his future style. No sooner had he returned to Antwerp in 1609 than he was appointed painter to the court of the Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella, the Spanish Habsburg regents in Flanders. From then on his career took off. Over the next ten years or so he produced some magnificent religious compositions for the Cathedral and the Jesuit Church in Antwerp. Works in this period included his Massacre of the Innocents and two magnificent altarpieces, The Raising of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross (illustrated), painted in 1611. In his Christ on the Cross, he uses dramatic lighting and swirling lines to create an extraordinary sense of movement. This series of paintings brought him international fame and commissions from all over Europe.

xxxxxAmong these commissions were the twelve tapestries he designed for Louis XIII of France, depicting the History of the Emperor Constantine, and 21 monumental scenes chronicling the life of the French king's mother, Marie de Medici. Completed over three years and designed to adorn her new residence in Paris (the Luxembourg Palais), this feast of sumptuous paintings - highly imaginative and awash with allegory and mythology - provided the excuse for a bevy of voluptuous nudes - affording ample evidence (ample is the word!) of Rubens' renowned skill at depicting flesh in the raw. In England his genius provided nine huge decorative panels for the ceiling of the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, London, the masterpiece of the English architect Inigo Jones. Commissioned by Charles I in 1929 to depict his father’s life and “wise government”, they were painted in Antwerp and eventually despatched in 1635. The story-line of each painting, lifting to Olympian heights the deeds of the somewhat pedestrian James I, so pleased the king that he presented Rubens with a valuable gold chain and, so the story goes, forbade the use of the hall for theatrical performances to prevent candle smoke from damaging the ceiling.

xxxxxApart from his work as a highly successful painter, Rubens often combined his artistic skills with those of a diplomat. Gracious in manner and able to speak five languages, he was sent on a number of diplomatic missions, often picking up commissions on the way. He paid two visits to Spain, where he painted King Philip IV and met and became friendly with the young painter Diego Velasquez. He visited Louis XIII of France in 1622, and his successful mission to London seven years later earned him more work as well as a knighthood from the English king, Charles I. Yet despite his hectic life-style, his personal life was a happy one. His first marriage was a success, and after his wife's death in 1626 he married a young girl of 16, Helena Fourment. She inspired a number of portraits, and also featured in some of his late figure paintings. The family home was a large classical mansion in Antwerp, and here Rubens amassed a vast collection of books, art and antiquities. The house is now a museum dedicated to his life and work. The painting is of Chateau de Steen, his country estate outside Antwerp. It can be seen in the National Gallery, London.


xxxxxBaroque was a revolt against the strict rules of classical art. It roughly spans the 17th century and was followed by Rococo, a more subtle form. In all forms of art, it is characterised by a dynamic intensity made up of movement, energy and tension, designed to appeal directly to the emotions. In painting, it began in Rome with artists like Michelangelo and Caravaggio and then moved northwards, becoming evident to varying degrees in the works of artists like Hals, Van Dyke, Velazquez, Rembrandt and Vermeer. The colours are vibrant, sensuous curves create movement, and the light is manipulated for dramatic effect. Rubens earned himself the title “Creator of Baroque”. But it is perhaps in architecture that baroque is seen in its most extravagant form. Here the new dynamic, sumptuous style produced splendid palaces and churches, with magnificent facades and ornate interiors.

xxxxxAs we have seen, Mannerism was a reaction - almost a revolt - against the strict rules of classical art. Baroque, on the other hand, was a development of that movement, not a new departure. As an art form it roughly spans the 17th century, towards the end of which a new style begins to emerge, that of Rococo - a more subtle and delicate offshoot. The word "baroque" may come from the Portuguese word barocco, meaning an irregularly shaped pearl, or from an academic term baroco referring to an involved argument. But whatever its derivation, the interpretation is the same - a style which is in excess or grotesque, flaunting the classical rules of good taste.

xxxxxBe it in painting, sculpture, architecture, furniture or music, baroque has a common denominator - a dynamic intensity made up of movement, energy and tension. Elaborate and unrestrained, it was designed to appeal directly to the emotions. It had its beginnings in Rome with the work of artists like Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Carracci, and from there it spread to Italy, Spain, Portugal, and northern Europe. Via Spain and Portugal it found its way to the New World, taking a particularly strong hold in Mexico and Brazil. Thexillustration here is Rape of the Sabine Women by the 17th century Italian artist Pietro da Cortona (c1596-1669).

xxxxxIn painting, as we have seen above, Rubens earned for himself the title "Creator of Baroque". His work has the vibrant colours, the powerful composition, and the sensuous curves of this dynamic movement. There is now a more conscious attempt at realism, be it in the portrayal of emotion or the more accurate rendering of tone and texture. And his work reveals, too, a masterly manipulation of light: the contrast between light and shade is heightened, thus enhancing the dramatic effect. These baroque components were evident in varying number and degree in the works of many artists, including those of Hals, Van Dyke, Velazquez, Rembrandt, and Vermeer.

xxxxxBut as an art form, baroque is seen at its most flamboyant and effective in architecture and sculpture. Classical forms were used, but classical rules of design were largely ignored. Thus Renaissance art was taken to new heights of extravagance. The result were buildings of immense grandeur, the external, ornate facades supported with twisted columns and covered with florid curves and scrolls; the inside a feast of glowing colour, amid multi-toned marble, elaborate carvings, bold paintings and imposing statutory. This new dynamic, sumptuous style produced splendid palaces for monarch and nobility, visible signs of social status. In respect of churches, it was powerful propaganda indeed for the Counter Reformation, a contrast to Protestant austerity, and unashamedly aimed at producing a feeling of awe and wonder in its beholder as a means to religious conversion. As we shall see (C1) the two great exponents in architecture and sculpture were to be Giovanni Bernini and his rival Francesco Borromini.