Monday, 27 January 2014

Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Flemish painter, considered the most important of the 17th century, whose style came to define the animated, exuberantly sensuous aspects of baroque painting (see Baroque Art and Architecture). Rubens created a vibrant style that combined the bold brushwork, luminous color, and shimmering light of the Venetian school (represented by Titian and Paulo Veronese) with the vigor of the art of Michelangelo and the formal dynamism of ancient Greek sculpture from the Hellenistic Age. The energy in his work emanates from tensions between the intellectual and the emotional, the classical and the romantic. For more than two centuries after his death, the vitality and eloquence of his work continued to influence such artists as Jean-Antoine Watteau in the early 18th century and Eugène Delacroix and Pierre Auguste Renoir in the 19th century.
Rubens’s father, Jan Rubens, was a prominent lawyer and Antwerp alderman who converted from Catholicism to Calvinism. In 1568 Jan Rubens left Flanders with his family to escape persecutions against Protestants. Peter Paul was born in exile in Siegen, Westphalia (now in Germany), also the birthplace of his brother Philip and his sister Baldina. In Westphalia, Jan Rubens became the adviser and lover of Princess Anna of Saxony, wife of Prince William I of Orange (William the Silent).
When Jan Rubens died in 1587, his widow returned the family to Antwerp, where she and the children became Catholics. Peter Paul received an excellent education, studying the classics in a Latin school and serving as a court page. This education enabled him throughout his life to share the interests of classical scholars and archaeologists and even to contribute to their research. After he decided to become a painter, he apprenticed in turn with three minor Flemish painters (Tobias Verhaecht, Adam van Noort, and Otto van Veen) who had been influenced by 16th-century Mannerist artists of the Florentine-Roman school (see Mannerism). The young Rubens was as precocious a painter as he had been a scholar of classical antiquity and modern European languages (he spoke six). In 1598, at the age of 21, he was accorded the rank of master painter of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke.
Shortly thereafter, following the example of many northern European artists of the period, Rubens traveled to Italy, the center of European art for the previous two centuries. In 1600 he arrived in Venice, where he was particularly inspired by the paintings of Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto. Later, while living in Rome, he was influenced by the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, as well as by ancient Greco-Roman sculpture.
Vincenzo Gonzaga, the duke of Mantua, employed Rubens for about nine years. Rubens copied Renaissance paintings for the ducal collection, but he was also able to execute original works. In 1603 he served as the duke’s emissary to King Philip III of Spain.
During his years in Italy, Rubens was exposed to the early baroque works of contemporary Italian painters Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio, and he associated with some of the leading humanist intellectuals of the day. Gradually, the bourgeois Flemish painter became a gentleman artist of international repute.
It was news of his mother’s impending death that brought Rubens back to Antwerp in 1608. Although he did not arrive in time to see his mother alive he remained in Antwerp, where he married Isabella Brant the following year. While in Italy, Rubens had formulated one of the first innovative expressions of the baroque style, which on his return earned him recognition as the foremost painter of Flanders. He was immediately employed by the burgomaster (mayor) of Antwerp. His success was further confirmed in 1609, when he was engaged as court painter to the Austrian archduke Albert and his wife, the Spanish princess Isabella, who together ruled the Low Countries as viceroys for the king of Spain. The number of pictures requested from Rubens was so large that he established an enormous workshop, in which he would execute the initial sketch and final touches while his apprentices completed all the intermediary steps.
In addition to receiving court commissions from Brussels and abroad, the highly devout Rubens was much in demand by the militant Counter Reformation church of Flanders, which regarded his dramatic, emotionally charged interpretations of religious events—such as the Triptych of the Raising of the Cross (1610-1611, Antwerp Cathedral)—as effective instruments for spiritual recruitment and renewal. Prosperity allowed Rubens to build a residence in Antwerp in the style of an Italian palace, where he housed his extensive collection of art and antiquities.
Between 1622 and 1630 Rubens’s role as a diplomat was equal to his importance as a painter. In 1622 he visited Paris, where the French queen Marie de Médicis commissioned him to depict her life in a series of allegorical paintings for the Luxembourg Palace. He completed these paintings in 1625. Despite the keen loss Rubens felt after the death of his wife in 1626, he continued to be highly productive. In 1628 he was sent by the Flemish viceroys to Spain.
While in Madrid, he received several commissions from King Philip IV of Spain, who made him secretary of his Privy Council. Rubens also served as a mentor to the young Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. After a delicate diplomatic mission to London in 1629, Rubens was knighted by a grateful King Charles I of England, for whom he executed several paintings, as well as the preliminary sketches (finished in Antwerp, 1636) for the ceiling mural in the Whitehall Palace Banqueting Hall.
From 1630, when he married Hélène Fourment, until his death, Rubens remained in Antwerp, primarily at Castle Steen, his country residence. During the final decade of his life, he continued to execute commissions for the Habsburg monarchs of Austria and Spain. Increasingly, he also painted pictures of personal interest, especially of his wife and children and of the Flemish countryside.
Rubens’s late style, and indeed the intentions of his entire career, are summed up in The Judgment of Paris (1635?, National Gallery, London). In this painting, the richness of creation is symbolized by the voluptuous goddesses and the verdant landscape against which they pose. Luxuriant color, glowing light and shade, sensuous brushwork, and an elegant composition all serve to further the meaning of the narrative: Paris’s selection of the most beautiful goddess.

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