6 Things About Peter Paul Rubens You Probably Didn’t Know

Sir Peter Paul Rubens was a Flemish artist most well-known for his religious and mythological work in the Flemish Baroque tradition. His busy studio was the most famous in all of Europe in the 1600s and his masterpieces emphasized movement, color, and sensuality that had royalty and nobility begging for more.

Self-portrait, 1623
Self-portrait, 1623

An interesting and prolific artist, let’s dive into six things you may not have known about Peter Paul Rubens.

Rubens began his artistic apprenticeship at age 14. 

Raised Roman Catholic and receiving a classical education, Rubens began his artistic training in 1591 as an apprentice to Tobias Verhaecht. After a year, he moved on to work with Adam van Noort for four years. 

He was then apprenticed to Antwerp’s leading artist Otto van Veen and in 1598 was admitted into the painter’s guild of Antwerp before setting off on his own to explore Italy in May 1600.

Rubens learned much about art from painting copies. 

In Venice, Rubens was inspired by artists such as Titian, Tintoretto, and Paolo Veronese before being hired by the duke of Mantua for whom he made copies of Renaissance paintings. 

In October 1600, Rubens moved on yet again and found himself this time in Florence to attend the marriage of Marie de Medicis to King Henry IV of France and continued to make copies of 16th century art, which now serve art historians well. 

Rubens was an art collector. 

In August 1601, Rubens made his way to Rome where the Baroque style reigned supreme with the revival of Michelangelo and Raphael styles. He received his first commission in Spain during this era and he seemed to be taking everything in. This included amassing a hefty collection of art.

At the end of 1605, he made his second trip to Rome and, along with his brother Philip, began collecting and studying all forms of artwork and ancient philosophy. He had a sizeable collection of Roman scripture, reliefs, portrait busts, and rare coins. 

Rubens designed his own art studio and had many assistants. 

Rubens returned to Antwerp in late 1608 after receiving news that his mother was ill. Although he was too late, he remained there to accept the role of court painter to Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, the Spanish Habsburg regents of Flanders.

The next year, he married his first wife, Isabella Brant and annexed his painting studio a magnificent townhouse in the city. Filled with assistants, collaborators, apprentices, and engravers, Rubens was able to produce an enormous volume of work with their help.

Double Portrait in a Honeysuckle Bower – Depicts Rubens with his wife Isabella Brant and was painted to celebrate their marriage.
Double Portrait in a Honeysuckle Bower – Depicts Rubens with his wife Isabella Brant and was painted to celebrate their marriage.

For the most part, Rubens’ paintings would start off as an oil sketch, called a modello, painted on a small panel. He would make preparatory drawings of the individuals that were to be included in the composition.

From there, execution would be left to his trusted assistants with Rubens painting the key areas himself and conducting a thorough re-touch of each piece of work. Engravers would help to reproduce many of Ruben’s paintings which helped in the widespread dissemination of his work throughout Europe. 

Rubens can be attributed to nearly 400 complete paintings. 

In the 1600s, artists were mostly commissioned workers who painted for specific projects. Therefore, Rubens work became synonymous with certain political movements of the time. 

Once he was back in Antwerp, the Twelve Years’ Truce was being conducted between Dutch separatists and the Spanish, calling for religious changes in Flanders. Flemish churches were being refurbished and Rubens was hired to complete the artwork for such projects. 

During this time, between 1610 and 1611, Rubens painted two of his greatest triptychs The Elevation of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross

The Elevation of the Cross
The Elevation of the Cross

In the decade to follow, Rubens would produce a vast number of altarpieces from Roman Catholic churches and became known as the chief artistic proponent of the counter-Reformation spirituality movement in northern Europe.

Some of his most important religious paintings from this period are The Last Judgment and Christ on the Cross. Still, even though he was a big deal in religious depictions, he also dabbled in mythological, historical, and other secular themes as you can see in paintings such as Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus and The Hippopotamus Hunt

In 1622, Rubens was called for one of his most notable projects by Queen mother Marie de Medicis to decorate a gallery in her newly built Luxembourg Palace. She commissioned 21 canvases to promote her life and regency of France.

Some of Rubens’ work as commissioned by Marie de Medicis.
Some of Rubens’ work as commissioned by Marie de Medicis

Much of his work was commissioned via word-of-mouth. Rubens was famous all around Europe as “the painter of princes and the prince of painters” and often complained about being “the busiest and most harassed man in the world.” Still, he continued to take on a huge number of projects for Europe’s elite.

Sadly, most of Rubens’ work as a young man and even some of his later paintings remain unknown or unidentified. Even work that we know exists have been lost over the years or have been destroyed during political or religious upheaval.

Rubens’ second wife was 16 years old.

She was also his first wife’s niece, Helene Fourment and they were married when Rubens was 53 years old. 

To be fair, it’s difficult to view this fact through a 21st century lens as life in the early 1600s had many nuances. Things were obviously different back in the early 1600s and at the end of the day, Helene inspired much of Rubens’ work in the last decade of his life.

The marriage became official in 1630, four years after the death of Isabella, and the voluptuous female figures prevalent in some of his later paintings such as The Feast of Venus, The Three Graces, and The Judgment of Paris were particularly reminiscent of Helene. 

The Feast of Venus
The Feast of Venus

Rubens bought another house in 1635 where he spent most of his time in old age but he continued to paint nonetheless. The estate was outside of Antwerp and he composed landscape work include Chateau de Steen with Hunter and Farmers Returning from the Fields during this period.

On May 30, 1640, Rubens died from gout which resulted in heart failure. He left behind eight children, three from Isabella and five from Helene, many of whom married into esteemed and noble families of Antwerp.

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