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Peter Paul Rubens Biography

For a brief overview of Rubens' life please read the summary below. For more detailed information about a part of Rubens' life please scroll down to:

    Rubens Biography Part 1 - Early Years In Cologne
    Rubens Biography Part 2 - Antwerp (1587-1600)
    Rubens Biography Part 3 - Rome (1600-1609)
    Rubens Biography Part 4 - The Isabella Brandt Years (1609-1626)
    Rubens Biography Part 5 - The Helene Fourment Years (1627-1640)

Birth Year : 1577
Death Year : 1640
Country : Netherlands

Peter Paul Rubens, the great Flemish Baroque master, was born in Germany while his Protestant father was in exile.

Rubens did not return to his family's native Antwerp until after his father's death in 1589. He was then brought up as a devout Catholic and received a classical education before studying art with three successive Flemish artists. He became a member of the Antwerp Painters' Guild in 1598 and in 1600 left for Italy. Except for a brief trip to Spain, he remained in Italy for eight years, studying, traveling, and working for the Duke of Mantua. It was during this period that he absorbed and expressed the ideas and influences of Michelangelo, Raphael, Correggio, and of his contemporaries, the Caracci and Caravaggio, producing religious works that already more than hinted at his later style. Upon his return to Antwerp, Rubens became painter to the Archduke and opened his own studio, which was so busy that he was able to hire the best artists of his day to work with him. By 1616, Rubens had fully developed a personal, dynamic style characterized by narrative action, simplicity of figure, and bold, dramatic plasticity and lighting. As spokesman for the Catholic Counter Reformation, Rubens painted many religious works for various churches and cathedrals during this period. The years 1614-1622 were marked by great self-assurance, increased fluidity in his work, and dramatic movement often expressed in pyramids of twisting bodies. These characteristics were especially evident in hunt and battle scenes of a mythological or historical nature. After his first wife died in 1626, Rubens served as a diplomat in Spain and England. The years 1622-1632 were the period of his great international commissions, such as the Medici cycle for the Luxembourg Palace; and these years are marked by splendid pictorialism and rapidity of technique. In 1630, Rubens married the young Hélèna Fourment, and from 1632 to the end of his life, he lived in semi-retirement in his castle at Steen, where he began to paint landscapes with renewed interest. These landscapes were rich and warm in color and bathed in the golden glow characteristic of Titian's work. Ruben's paintings expressed the spirit of the 17th century. A dramatic, powerful, and highly intelligent painter, Rubens was endowed with magnificent creative inventiveness. The Early Years in Cologne

Rubens was born in 1577 probably in Siegen, in what is now Germany – possibly in Cologne. His story, however, does not start with his birth. At age 32 his father, Jan Rubens, was magistrate for the entire Antwerp region. His mother, Maria Rubens, was the daughter of a wealthy merchant. They were married about the time when the thriving paradise of Antwerp had reached its peak. Nothing can last forever, and uprisings because of the recession broke out, so the couple fled Antwerp. Jan Rubens found good employment in Cologne in 1572. There, the family heard stories of what they had escaped. Ten to fifty thousand people in Antwerp were killed. It’s difficult to say exactly how many. Few were left to assess the damage.

At the same time in Cologne, William of Orange had moved his court to his castle there. Soon he left it on an expedition to muster troops to free the Netherlands from the Spanish which would span more than two years. During this trip he left his very lonely, spoiled, miserable wife, Anne of Saxony, at home. The lack of attention did not suit her so she searched for it elsewhere. First she found it in a young officer who soon died in combat, then a banker’s son, and then the banker. However, none of them left the lasting impression that her affair with Jan Rubens did. Their affair went on for years and they even retreated together to a private chalet. A with all of the other affairs, when William of Orange was written to of it he did nothing. Eventually he told his brother, Count John of Nassau to give the order to Anne to end the affair. They did not and in the spring of either 1571 or 1572 Anne became pregnant.

His father was imprisoned. Maria Rubens made frequent pleas for his release, but to no avail. Fortunately, Count John waited for a royal order for the execution that never came. Finally Jan Rubens was released to his house on a set of restrictions. He could not travel more than 2 kilometers from his home, he could not set foot inside a church, and a guard of the House of Orange would watch him. Soon, Spain restored the properties of the residents of Antwerp. The poverty of the Rubens family was relieved. Maria Rubens wanted to move to where they could make better usage of this and she was allowed to with her children, but her husband was not.

In 1578 William of Orange was a victor. He had freed the Netherlands from Spain and Anne of Saxony was dead. Jan Rubens was allowed to leave the territory controlled by Count John, but he could not return to Flanders or any area of Prince William’s jurisdiction. They returned to Cologne where Jan Rubens began his law practice again and Maria opened a rooming house.

The family, by the time Peter Paul Rubens was born, had already had six children, five of whom remained alive. Jan-Baptiste, Blandine, Claire, Henrik, and Phillip were all born before Peter Paul. Bartholomeus died in infancy. The older children never spoke to Phillip or Peter Paul of their father’s disgrace and they had not been in Siegen to know themselves. The children were tutored at home instead of sent to school so they were not teased because of their father’s indiscretions there. Also, Jan Rubens’ practice was unsuccessful, so he had time to teach his children. Peter Paul’s lessons included, Latin, Greek, Spanish, French, English, the classics, and mathematics.

William of Orange was assassinated in 1584. This ended Jan Rubens’ ban of setting foot on his soil. They sent in letters for passports that would allow them to travel to Flanders. However, before these passports were processed, Jan Rubens died of a heart attack in 1587. Later that year Maria was allowed to take her children and move back o Antwerp, where many other refugees finally had the chance to return. The people began to rebuild the city. The public buildings were rebuilt first, the entire harbor was cleared and the obstacles of passage removed before the volunteers were permitted to build new homes.

Continue to Rubens Biography Antwerp 1587-1600

Antwerp 1587 - 1600

Young Peter Paul Rubens was sent to the best school available to him. There he met Moretus, a son of a printer and a friend he would keep all his life. However, after his sister’s marriage to a nobleman his mother could not afford to send him there any longer, the money needed to go to the girl’s dowry. Maria Rubens found a place for him as a page in the court of the Countess de Lalaing.

His duties as a page were to accompany the countess to church and on public appearances. He had classes six hours a day with two other pages and the countess’ two sons. The Count de Lalaing also made certain that the pages were allowed an hour’s canter after mass. He brought them on the hunt, showed them how to handle a falcon, and spent several hours a week teaching them the sword. The Lalaing had a gallery of art and Ruben’s nephew would say that that was when his interest in art was peaked. However, he is the one who decided to break from this lifestyle. He loathed the Countess’s game of dressing up her pages as girls and forcing them to pretend to be such when she entertained guests. The Countess and her ladies treated these boys as dolls and did not resist such things as fondling them. In this vein, one of his fellow pages was incredibly homosexual, so much so that he stopped his activities such as riding and fencing with the other boys. His family did not back him on his desire to quit the court and become an artist, but he defied them, so great was his desire to go.

It is worth noting that sometime around this period Peter Paul Rubens learned about what his father had done. Blandine wrote to Philip, “Peter Paul knows the truth about Papa, and is even angrier and more hurt than you were, because you long suspected what the rest of us tried with diligence to keep from your ears.” This had a grave effect on the young boy’s personality. He had earlier been a normal, outgoing young man. After he found out, Peter Paul Rubens distanced himself from everyone but his family. Even his childhood friends noticed a formal note from him.

This time period was still the revival of Antwerp. People were not yet rich enough to afford great works of art, statues, leather-bound books, and wood carvings. So, to revive the painter’s guild the Roman Catholic Church became the greatest patron of the arts, ordering works both religious and secular.

Around the age of 14, Rubens began to study under Tobias Verhæcht, a traditionalist and landscape artist. At age 17 or 18 he changed his apprenticeship to the studio of Adam van Noort, a figure painter who never deviated from Flemish traditions. Finally, before his 20th birthday he changed to the guidance of the immigrant, Otto van Veen (Otto Venius) where he stayed. It was Venius, a great lover of Italy, who convinced Rubens that his knowledge was incomplete without having seen Italian art. They were from the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke. At the age of 21 he was awarded the rank of Master painter by this guild and admitted.

Continue to Rubens Biography Part 3: Rome 1600-1609

Rome 1600-1609

He worked for two years supporting himself with a studio of Venius’, selling paintings. Then, he obtained his passport to Italy, a place he felt he had to visit in order to advance as an artist. His trip to Italy was leisurely made and on the way he stopped at the homes of many unexplained connections.

Then he was hired by Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, for whom he worked for 9 years. He did both original works and copies of Renaissance paintings. He also did the portraits of the duke’s mistresses. After the duke lost interest in a woman, Rubens was allowed the next attempt at her favors. The duke sent the newly appointed master painter across Europe to Italy, a necessity for the continuation of his career in art. He arrived in Venice in 1600 and then traveled to Rome. In Rome he created the triptych which is the first work to be attributed to him: “The Finding of the True Cross by St. Helena” (center), “The Raising of the Cross”, and “The Crowing with Thorns.”

For the most of the duration of his work for the Duke he worked in Italy, but he did take a short trip to Spain. Gonzaga used him as an ambassador to the Spanish King. His choice of Rubens was for two reasons. First, the king was very conscious of family and Fleming enjoyed the favor of Archduke Albert, his uncle. Second, Rubens was a great speaker. The Duke had not given what Rubens considered to be sufficient funds. Unfortunately, during one stretch of his journey to the king on which Rubens took the gifts on dirt roads it began to rain. It rained for three weeks and the paintings, although covered in zinc, were damaged. Rubens, seeing no alternative, fixed them himself and then added to the pile. The Duke of Lerma, impressed by Rubens’ works, commissioned him to do a piece for him in Madrid. The Duke wanted Rubens to then follow him to Paris to paint portraits of beautiful women for him, but Rubens replied that he considered it beneath him and in 1604 returned to Mantua instead. Rubens continued to work for the duke and commissioned him to work on original pieces. The duke was so impressed by Ruben’s work that he made him pensioner for life with the sum of 400 gold ducats per annum.

In 1607, Rubens would break off relations with Mantua. The duke had been poor about paying the pension due to Rubens. The straw that broke the camel’s back, though, was the duke’s refusal to pay the original price for a piece done by Rubens.

His brother Philip left for Flanders that summer, leaving Peter Paul Rubens alone in Rome. Soon Philip wrote to him with terrible news, his sister Blandine was dead and his mother dying. He left immediately but when he finally arrived Philip informed him that their mother had died a month ago. He stayed in Antwerp, although he longed to leave, to see his closest family member, his brother Philip, be married to the daughter of Henri le Moy.

Continue to Rubens Biography Part 4: Antwerp 1609-1626 The Isabella Brandt Years

Antwerp 1609-1626 - The Isabella Brandt Years

Peter Paul Rubens was not unsuccessful in Antwerp. He obtained commissions from the Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella and was even allowed to remain in Antwerp even though the couple lived in Brussels. In 1609 he married Isabella Brandt there. Not much is known about what attracted the two to one another or how compatible their morality was. They both attended mass daily because of her and no scandal attached to their name. The couple had three children, Clara, Albert, and Nicolas.

Rubens, unlike other master artists like Van Gogh, was very much appreciated during his lifetime and had so many requests for artwork that, even with his supreme energy, he could not do them all alone. Instead of refusing requests, Rubens hired a large workshop. He would do the initial sketch himself, have his workshop painters do the grunt work, and then do the details that marked the painting as a masterpiece himself. He was also a much sought after teacher and the wings in his house always had 6 to 8 apprentices and his workshop never wanted for the best painters. A side note, Rubens was always a frugal businessman and he knew that he could only charge what his popularity allowed, so he found business with the Church. Over 75% of his work during this time in Antwerp was done for the Church.

In 1612 his brother, Philip Rubens, died of a sudden heart attack and his widow died soon after. Peter Paul Rubens formally adopted his two children, Philip and Clara, before the year was out. He also financially supported the children of Blandine and Du Parcq, although they did not move into his house.

He was soon able to make his own rules and returned to the Baroque style that he had used for the Raising for “The Raising of the Cross” despite any complaints anyone could harbor. By 1620 he had so much money that he did not need to see commissions, no matter who wanted them. So, he cut the size of his staff and the output of his studio. It was in this year that he also took on one of his largest, most ambitious project. The Jesuits of Flanders were completing their new church and Rubens promised to paint thirty-nine pictures by the end of the year. Although he was allowed to have as many collaborators as he wanted, Rubens was required to himself do all the sketches.

Always seeking to do better than what he’d already done, climbing from plateau to plateau, Rubens found out about a new job that could surpass what he’d already done in the Jesuit church. Marie de’ Medici had just had a new house completed for her and she wanted to fill it with art. Her idea was to commission one painting from twenty or more artists. Rubens suggested that she should instead commission twenty or more paintings from one artist, him. Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella were extremely amenable to this because relations with Spain were strained and they hoped that an alliance with France would give them new power. Rubens was once again both painter and diplomat. The paintings were originally supposed to do homage to King Henry IV, but Rubens appealed to the Queen Mother’s vanity when he suggested that he do the whole series of her life. Unfortunately, Marie de’ Medici continued to haggle with Rubens over price after the paintings were completed. Although she had commissioned a new series from him, she dragged her feet on important information that the artist needed: she did not want the series of her husband’s life to be created yet because it would make hers less spectacular.

Fighting had begun anew between the Netherlands and Spain. Rubens would ignore the slight of not being paid in order to focus on smoothing the relations between these countries. During this time King Phillip IV named Rubens as a noble.

Isabella Brandt died in 1626. During the summer and autumn of that year, Rubens did no work.

Continue to Rubens Biography Part 5: Later Years 1627-1640 - The Hélène Fourment Years

The Later Years 1627 – 1640 - The Hélène Fourment Years

In 1627 Rubens had a new idea for making money. He wanted to work with engraving and be able to produce less expensive copies of his works. He worked on this with Christopher Jegher, a man referred to him by Moretus. Also during this time, Rubens made many designs for items like gold and silver bowls and cup and ivory statuettes.
A new political matter that bothered Rubens was the new Bishops of Antwerp. The Jesuits of Flanders had several humanist bishops die and they were replaced by archconservatives. It drove many Antwerp men to Holland. The bishops forced all people to be Catholic and to attend mass every two Sundays out of three.

Rubens would soon throw himself into his work, both artistic and diplomatic again. He was instrumental in the peace accords between England and Spain. Spain had wanted to force the English to change to Catholicism. However, Archduchess Isabella refused to join in that proposed holy war and King Philip IV knew he could not win without the aid of The Netherlands. This peace would not last after the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham, the suspect in England at the time being that the assassin was in the pay of Spain. He would then travel to England where he attempted to persuade the English to sign a new treaty of friendship, but the French Chateauneuf attempted to thwart this at every turn. It wasn’t until early 1630 that the Spanish ambassador finally showed up and this was accomplished. Rubens also painted during this time, doing commissioned works for the King of England like “Allegory of War and Peace” and “St. George and the Dragon.” Upon his departure, Rubens was made a baronet, a gift from King Charles.

Rubens began the Henri IV series, completing the paintings “Triumphal Entry of Henri IV into Paris” and “The Battle of Ivry.” Two sketches for future paintings still exist, “Henri IV in Battle” and “Henri IV at the Battle of St. Martin l’Eglise.” After notifying the French of his work he finally received word that the French were under no obligation to buy his paintings. Rubens did get to save face a little from this though, when he fulfilled an earlier contracted for Louis XIII, twelve tapestry cartoons depicting “The Life of Constantine.” The king was forced to pay, although he made a small attempt to wiggle out of payment. In this year Rubens added yet another honor to his collection, he became Secretary of the Privy Council of the Netherlands. It required no work, but paid him three thousand gold crowns a year. His oldest son would inherit this along with his English title.

In 1630 he married his niece, the daughter of his wife’s sister. Her name was Hélène Fourment and she was 16. Her father, although he may have been surprised, gave his consent and she had no dowry. There were many critics of their marriage, many people disliking the idea of a 53-year-old man marrying a woman less than a third his age who happened to be the same age as his oldest son. They were happy for the rest of his life, though, and she bore him five children: Claire-Jeanne, Francois, Isabella- Hélène, Peter Paul, and Constance-Albertine. She posed for many of the paintings using a female figure in the last 10 years of his life and work.

Soon there was a problem in France that needed attending to. The Queen Mother, Marie de’ Medici had a falling out with Cardinal Richelieu. Marie plotted his downfall, but it was found out and troops surrounded her in her Palais du Luxembourg, but did not enter to retrieve her. The Queen Mother sent a letter out to Archduchess Isabella requesting that Rubens come and take her into exile in The Netherlands. Isabella considered it her duty to help and requested that Rubens go as ambassador. Rubens accepted despite her poor treatment of him and escorted her to The Netherlands after two weeks of talks with Cardinal Richelieu.

However, Rubens’ good luck could not go on forever. In 1631, Archduchess Isabella aging, the Spanish launched an attack on the Netherlands. Thankfully the Dutch army stepped in and fought the Spanish. The regent authorized a peace meeting with Peter Paul Rubens as the principal negotiator. However, when he went to sort out the probelm, the Dutch army would not grant him a safe-conduct pass to get to The Hague. The Dutch feared that he was an agent of Madrid and would not be fair in the negotiations and would not accept him. He was snubbed in Antwerp as the reason the war was continuing. After this, Rubens would give up his life as an ambassador and worked solely as a painter.

In 1633 he bought a new house, Het Stein, in the town of Elewijt, near Brussels. In a way he was running away from Antwerp, but he did not know what other choice he had. He did not want his family to have problems in town because of the people’s misconception.

Although he turned down multiple job offerings as a diplomat, he did accept a huge commission from Philip IV. The king wanted 110 paintings down for his Torre de la Parada. Rubens accepted the commission on the condition that he could have other Flemish painters work with him. He guaranteed that it would all be in his style and it would come together as a harmonious whole. The king accepted. Problems emerged during the progress of this task, though. Rubens suffered terrible rheumatism. Also, he had called many of his previous apprentices. These men were at this point, masters and chafed at the close supervision and the other men. The work was completed, though. After this, Rubens stopped taking commissions or selling his landscapes for a while. He even denied a request made by Kind Charles because of his poor health, although he continued to work for himself whenever he could.

His rheumatism turned into rheumatic gout in 1637 and it disabled him intermittently until his death and he was forced to stop work even for his closest friends. However, he did do some great works for himself during this period. Examples are “The Judgment of Paris” and “Offering to Venus.” Also from this time is “The Evils of War,” done for a fellow artist, Sustermans. Anoter work he did was for the Convent of Mala Strana, because he did not have the heart to refuse them. His final commission was for Philip IV, but the two paintings he actually painted for the king are gone, one simply vanished and another destroyed in a fire. On May 30, 1640, Peter Paul Rubens died.