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Peter Paul Rubens: Biography, Paintings & Style

Instructor: Amy Martin
This text lesson discusses the life and career of the prolific Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). We will also explore his style by looking at a couple of his most famous paintings.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Peter Paul Rubens, Self-Portrait (c. 1638-1639), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Rubens, Self-Portrait (c. 1638-1639)

Peter Paul Rubens was one of the most prominent and influential painters in Northern Europe during the seventeenth century. In this lesson, we will talk about Rubens' personal life and training, his rise to fame, and his unique style of painting.

Rubens' career as a painter began in 1598 when he was just 21 years old and had been made an independent master in the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp, a city in the Spanish Netherlands (now present-day Belgium). He went to Italy in May 1600 to serve as court painter to Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. Rubens traveled widely in Italy and studied art from antiquity, Renaissance greats, like Titian and Michelangelo, and the work of his contemporaries, such as Caravaggio. In 1608, Rubens returned to Antwerp after receiving word that his mother had fallen gravely ill and died.

Peter Paul Rubens, Self-Portrait with Isabella Brant (c. 1609-1610), Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
Rubens, Self-Portrait with Isabella Brant (c. 1609-1610)

When Rubens got back to Antwerp, he was appointed court painter to the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, Archduke Albert and his wife, Isabella Clara Eugenia. Rubens was now very well off and a fixture in Antwerp's art world. He married his first wife, Isabella Brant, the daughter of a city clerk, in October 1609. The house Rubens purchased for them to live in included a large workshop where Rubens painted, taught, and conducted business.

When he wasn't working on commissions from the Archduke and Archduchess, Rubens' primary employment was altarpieces. He became so busy with commissions that he couldn't fulfill them alone, so the assistants and apprentices in his workshop would work on each painting following Rubens' design.

In addition to being a painter, Rubens was also a trusted diplomat for the Spanish Netherlands. Diplomatic duties for Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella occupied much of Rubens' time during the 1620s.

Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment and Their Son Frans (c. 1635), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Rubens, Portrait of the Artist with his Wife Helene Fourment and their Son, Frans (c. 1635)

The 1630s marked a shift in Rubens' personal life and artistic style. His first wife, Isabella Brant, died of plague in 1626, and in December 1630, Rubens married Helene Fourment, the sixteen year-old daughter of a wealthy merchant family. In the last decade of his life, Rubens often painted landscapes and scenes of merriment inspired by the countryside for his own pleasure rather than for sale. A case of gout in 1639 left Rubens unable to paint, and he died on May 30, 1640.

Famous Paintings and Style

Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria (1606), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Rubens, Portrait of Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria (1606)

Rubens' style of portraiture is exemplified in his portrait of the Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria. The sitter of this portrait, Brigida Spinola, was from one of Genoa's wealthiest families. In 1605, she married her equally wealthy cousin, the Marchese Giacomo Massimiliano Doria, and Rubens' portrait of Brigida illustrates her new title and status.

She wears an elaborate white silk dress, likely her wedding gown, and stands confidently between architectural elements that are reminiscent of the Italian palace she lived in. The Marchesa's wealth is displayed through her ornate clothing and jewelry, and we can infer her social status through her downward gaze.

Brigida would have appeared much more imposing than she seems today because Rubens' portrait was originally full length. A full length portrait might not seem like a big deal, but in the seventeenth century, this form of portraiture was usually reserved for kings. Because of the way Rubens depicted her, Brigida Spinola Doria's importance would have been self-evident to contemporary viewers.

This portrait set a precedent for the rest of Rubens' career; in future portraits, he would often show his sitters in full length and include status symbols to highlight their wealth and social standing.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Raising of the Cross (1610-1611), Antwerp Cathedral.
Rubens, The Raising of the Cross (1610-1611)

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