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Master of the baroque

Rubens was talented, sharp and savvy

Self-Portrait in Old Age

PETER PAUL RUBENS was born on June 28, 1577 on the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul from whom he got his Christian names. His father was an ardent Calvinist and fled Antwerp to Germany to escape religious persecution. After his father's death, the family moved back to Antwerp and Rubens was raised as Roman Catholic — which is revealed in the strong Counter-Reformation tenor of his works. He received his early artistic training in Antwerp and by the age of 21 was a master painter. He left for Italy in 1600 to complete his education and fell under the spell of Titian's radiant colours and majestic forms.

He was court painter to the Duke of Mantua for eight years. During this time he visited Spain, influencing Spanish baroque art. Following the death of his mother in 1608, he returned to Antwerp and married Isabella Grant by whom he had two sons, Albert and Nicholas. He soon made a name for himself as the greatest painter in the Spanish Netherlands. Isabella died in 1626 and four years later he married her niece, 16-year-old Helena Fourment.

While he has greatly inspired by the Renaissance and Roman Catholic dogma, he brought a frenetic energy and exuberance all of his own to his works. The glowing colours and light and the sense of movement and strength his works reveal are characteristically baroque.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia describes his work as having "an abundant glory, such powerful organic life, that his pictures are not easy to appreciate until one is practically vanquished by the glory of their colour and the luxuriance of their conceptions."

An undated work titled The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens

Apart from court painter, Rubens' sweet disposition and courtliness made him ideal for many diplomatic duties. The peace treaty between England and Spain for his patrons Archduke Ferdinand and Archduchess Isabella was one of the many he concluded. Charles I of England was so impressed with Rubens that he knighted him and commissioned him to do a painting on the ceiling (The Allegory of War and Peace) in Whitehall. Rubens was aware of his own talents, which cause him to observe in 1621: "My talents are such that I have never lacked courage to undertake any design however vast in size or diversified in subject."

He puts to rest the image of an artist as a dreamer — he would be up at four in the morning and could paint while dictating a letter and carrying on a conversation with a visitor all at the same time! He died in 1640 in Antwerp when gout claimed his heart.


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