Peter Paul Rubens Biography

Peter Paul Rubens created Baroque style paintings infused with rich colors, sweeping movement and deep sensuality. Rubens was a master of the excessively female. His portraiture of women famously focused on a voluptuous sexuality that was ahead of its time. His Counter-Reformation 17th century portraits, landscapes and history paintings dealing with mythological subjects are accented by his signature Amazonian women—characteristic full-figured women that gave rise to the term “Rubenesque.” Rubens’ success was vastly influential and permeated several classes of society. In fact, the artist was not only a scholar and art collector, but also a diplomat who was knighted by the King of Spain, Philip IV, and King Charles I. Rubens paintings embellish mystical and allegorical subjects and make for regal and distinguished centerpieces.

Early Life

Rubens was born in Westphalia on June 28, 1577. His father had been an adamant Calvinist and suffered religious persecution in the late 16 century. Two years after his father’s death, a twelve year old Rubens moved with his mother to Antwerp where the young artist was raised as a Catholic. The history of religion in his family would be highly influential throughout his painting career and also in his political one—Rubens later became one of the leading advocates in the art side of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. At fourteen, Rubens began an apprenticeship with Tobias Verhaeght in Antwerp where much of his education involved copying earlier artists’ work such as woodcuts by Hans Holbein and Raimondi’s engravings. In 1600, a 23-year-old Rubens traveled to Italy where he would be inspired by Titian’s Venetian oil paintings, a style that would greatly influence his career, and settled in Mantua in the court of Duke Vincenzo I of Gonzaga.

The Young Artist Blossoms I Italy: 1600-1608

With the financial support of the Duke, Rubens traveled to Florence in 1601 where he studied classic Greek and Roman art. This influence of Hellenistic sculpture and painting would be adapted to his own blossoming Rubens art. Rubens painting was also highly inspired by the Michelangelo, Raphael, da Vinci and Caravaggio paintings he immersed himself with during his stay in Italy. The master of oil painting reproductions, Rubens created much sought after work during his early education, including an oil painting reproduction of Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ.

Feeling his education in oil painting reproductions had hit a crescendo, Rubens completed his first altarpiece commission for the Roman church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme entitled St. Helena with the True Cross. After a short trip to Spain on a diplomatic mission in 1603 to deliver gifts to the court of King Philip III, Rubens returned to Italy and lived between Mantua, Genoa and Rome. His portraiture expanded in Genoa where he also began an illustrated book documenting the palaces of Genoa. He also received an important altarpiece commission during this time for the Santa Maria in Vallicella whose subject matter was St. Gregory the Great and other local saints adoring the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. The development of Rubens artwork in Italy would prove to be important for the artist’s blossoming career as a leading Flemish Baroque painter.

Rise to Fame and Fortune in Antwerp: 1609-1621

Rubens left Italy in 1608 to be with his dying mother in Antwerp. Unfortunately, she passed away before his return. Back in Antwerp, Rubens realized the advantage of remaining in the city of his childhood. Antwerp had entered the Twelve Year’s Truce after the signing of the Treaty of Antwerp in 1609 and the city entered a period of renewed prosperity, something that proved fruitful for artistic creation. The artist became the court painter of Albert VII and Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain, but was granted permission to base his studio in Antwerp inside of the royal couple’s court in Brussels. Rubens the painter acted not only as such during the time, but also was called upon to serve as an ambassador and diplomat for his royal benefactors.

Rubens moved into a new studio that he designed himself in 1610. Now possessed with a new house to call his artistic home, his career flourished. He took on many assistants and apprentices, one of whom was Anthony van Dyck, a blossoming painter who would become the leading Flemish portraitist he is recognized as today. This period yielded some of the most famous Rubens paintings including The Raising of the Cross (1610) and The Descent from the Cross (c. 1611-1614). The former proves the effect of his earlier oil painting reproduction education as it marks the profound synthesis of Tintoretto, Michelangelo and the artist’s own signature style. This Rubens painting is often referred to as the pinnacle of Baroque religious art. During his time in Antwerp, Rubens also created the last significant woodcuts before the medium would undergo a revival in the 19th century.

Diplomacy and More Painting Commissions: 1621-1630

Rubens painted the famous Marie de’Medici cycle, now housed in the Louvre museum, in 1621 for the Queen Mother of France. As the Twelve Years’ Truce came to a close in 1621, Rubens’ Spanish Habsburg patrons sent him on a several diplomatic missions throughout Europe. Between 1627 and 1630, Rubens moved between the court of England and Spain in the hopes of creating a peace between the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic. Rubens spent much of 1628 in Madrid where his diplomatic missions coupled with a number of important paintings by Rubens for King Philip IV. Though Rubens traveled extensively during this time, his studio in Antwerp was flourishing and sustaining. In 1625, he created the famous Rubens painting for the Cathedral of Antwerp entitled The Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

The Final Years

True to his roots, Rubens spent his final years in Antwerp. Four years after his first wife’s death in 1630, Rubens—53 at the time—married the 16-year-old Helene Fournment. This young woman inspired Rubens taste for depicting voluptuous female figures in his paintings from the 1630s, including the famous painting by Rubens, The Three Graces.

Rubens moved to a country estate on the outskirts of Antwerp in 1635 where he spent his final days. This pilgrimage from the city influenced Rubens landscape oil paintings and he created his famous piece Farmers Returning from the Fields. On May 30, 1640 the artist died of gout. The fame of Rubens paintings lives on to this day, with many Rubens paintings selling for tens of millions of dollars. The record price for an Old Master painting was attained posthumously by Rubens when his Massacre of the Innocents sold for $76.2 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2002.