Peter Paul Rubens

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Rubens, Peter Paul,

1577–1640, foremost Flemish painter of the 17th cent., b. Siegen, Westphalia, where his family had gone into exile because of his father's Calvinist beliefs.

Early Life and Work

After his father's death in 1587, the family returned to Antwerp. There the young Rubens attended a Jesuit school, served as court page, and became an accomplished linguist. After 1591 he was apprenticed to several minor painters. In 1600 he went to Italy, where he spent eight years painting in the service of the duke of Mantua, who sent him on a mission to Spain in 1603. While there he painted the magnificent equestrian portrait of the Duke of Lerma (Prado). In Italy he painted and traveled, learning by making copies from the masters. The altar paintings for the Santa Maria Nuova, Rome, are among his finest works of this period.

Later Life and Mature Work

In 1608, after the death of his mother, Rubens returned to Antwerp, where within five years he became known as the greatest painter of his country. Much sought after as a teacher, Rubens set up an elaborate studio. He married Isabella Brant and prospered; he was deluged with commissions, especially for church decorations and altarpieces of large dimensions. To complete them Rubens organized an enormous workshop of skilled apprentices and associates, among whom were Van DyckVan Dyck or Vandyke, Sir Anthony
, 1599–1641, Flemish portrait and religious painter and etcher, b. Antwerp.
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 and JordaensJordaens, Jacob or Jacques
, 1593–1678, Flemish baroque painter, b. Antwerp. After the deaths of Rubens and Van Dyck, by whom he was influenced, he became the leading Flemish painter of his day and worked in
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. Raising of the Cross and Descent from the Cross (1610 and 1611; cathedral, Antwerp) date from this time and are works with which Rubens already rivaled the grandiose creations of Italian art that had dominated the imagination of Northern artists for almost a century.

From 1622 to 1625 the artist executed numerous commissions for the French court, including an imposing series of large allegorical paintings of the life of Marie de' Medici for the Luxembourg Palace that are now in the Louvre. Although his assistants did much of the work on them, it was Rubens who designed them and added the finishing touches. In this way his workshop produced numerous monumental works (e.g., The Assumption, cathedral, Antwerp).

In 1626, after the death of his wife, he entered the diplomatic service, for which his pleasing personality, knowledge of languages, and acquaintance with royalty fitted him well. In 1628 he went to Spain on a mission for England, and during his nine months in Madrid he became acquainted with Velázquez and painted the royal family. Thereafter in London, he was idolized and knighted for his peacemaking efforts. While in England he painted the Allegory of War and Peace (National Gall., London).

Last Years and Late Work

On his return to Antwerp in 1630 Rubens, then 53, married the 16-year-old Helen Fourment. Her portraits (Vienna Mus. and Louvre), and those of himself with her (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), are among his most joyous and personal paintings. During the last 10 years of his life Rubens worked with incredible energy, producing many of his finest pictures. Among these were the paintings for the ceiling at Whitehall for Charles I, finished in 1635.

During this time Rubens painted more than 100 works for the Spanish court alone. The Judgment of Paris and Three Graces (Prado) and Venus and Adonis (Metropolitan Mus.) belong to this period. Many of the artist's last years were spent on his princely estate, Castle Steen, near Brussels. At the age of 63, at the height of his powers and popularity, Rubens died of gout, which had crippled him periodically for three years.

Achievement and Influence

Under Rubens's direction or influence a whole school of first-rate artists flourished in Antwerp. The volume of his work is enormous, and though he did little but supervise much of the work attributed to him, his domination was so absolute that almost everything proceeding from his workshop shows the mark of his style. He explored all fields of painting. In landscape, portrait, genre, and animal painting he was as supremely successful as in his large religious and allegorical works; smaller pictures include Helen Fourment and Her Children (Louvre) and Peasant Dance (Prado). Contemporaries doubted the durability of his delicate glazes, but his pictures are singularly well preserved. More than 2,000 paintings have been attributed to Rubens's studio.


Almost every principal gallery of Europe contains fine examples of his work. In the United States the Art Institute of Chicago; the Nelson Gallery, Kansas City, Mo.; the National Gallery, Washington, D.C.; the Metropolitan Museum; the Cleveland Museum; and the Gardner Museum, Boston, all have work by Rubens.


See his letters, ed. by R. S. Magurn (1955); selected drawings (2 vol., 1959) and oil sketches (2 vol., 1980), both ed. by J. S. Held ; biographies by N. B. Gerson (1973) and K. Downes (1984); studies by J. Fletcher (1969), J. R. Martin (1969), J. Thuillier (tr. 1970), and J. Held (1981).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Rubens, Peter Paul


Born June 28, 1577, in Siegen, Germany; died May 30, 1640, in Antwerp. Flemish painter.

Rubens was the son of an emigrant lawyer from Flanders. In 1589 his family settled in Antwerp, where he received a well-rounded humanistic education. At an early age Rubens decided to devote himself to painting. He received his artistic training from T. Verhaecht (1591), A. van Noort (c. 1591–94) and O. van Veen (c. 1594–98). He became a master in the guild in 1598. From 1600 to 1608, Rubens visited Italy (Rome, Mantua, Genoa), where he studied the works of Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and Caravaggio. Most of Rubens’ early paintings are marked by vestiges of mannerism, but certain works (for example, Portrait of the Duke of Lerma, 1603, collection of Countess Valdelagrana, Madrid) foreshadowed the innovative character of the artist’s mature work.

When Rubens returned to Antwerp, he became the principal court painter to the ruler of Flanders, Isabella of Austria. Rubens’ first canvases painted in his homeland are distinguished by a fusion of impressions from Italian Renaissance paintings with the realist traditions of his own national art (for example, the work of Brueghel the Elder). Without destroying the principles of the mature baroque, Rubens chose as the basic content of his art the exaltation of life in its elemental manifestations. His paintings give the impression of unlimited space, destroying the isolation of individual images and making them appear as minor elements of a constantly changing, infinite universe. The composition, usually decorative in scope, is asymmetrical and ruled by an uneasy, complex rhythm. The sharply foreshortened figures are often depicted in turbulent motion, and there are often deep contrasts of light and shade.

During his first years back in Antwerp (1608–12), Rubens painted monumental religious compositions, including Erection of the Cross (c. 1610–11) and Descent From the Cross (c. 1611–14) for the Antwerp Cathedral. During this period he also painted formal portraits (Rubens With His First Wife, Isabella Brant; 1609, Old Pinakothek, Munich) and mythological scenes. Most of these works are marked by a certain deliberateness of pose and gesture and an uneconomical use of color. Between 1612 and 1620, Rubens freed himself from these qualities and painted many of his best works, including the mythological compositions Perseus and Andromeda (c. 1620–21, Hermitage, Leningrad) and The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (c. 1619–20, Old Pinakothek, Munich), several hunting scenes (c. 1616–17, Old Pinakothek, Munich), and two versions of The Last Judgment (c. 1615–16 and c. 1618–20, Old Pinakothek, Munich). Rubens’ representations of people, mythological deities, and animals are woven into complex and dynamic compositions. Rubens turned away from the purity of color, allowing his colors to blend softly into one another and softening his chiaroscuro. His landscapes, such as The Stone Carters (c. 1620, Hermitage, Leningrad), are largely depictions of imaginary scenes taking place “behind-the-scene” or off in vast distances. Yet they are inspired by the eternal conflict of the elements, by the indestructible interaction of various aspects of the environment, by the character of the landscape, and by human nature. From roughly 1611 to 1618, Rubens worked as an architect. The house he built for himself in Antwerp is noted for a certain theatrical elegance. (The artist kept his valuable collection of paintings and antiquities in this house.)

By 1615–20, Rubens had won fame and recognition. After 1617 his studio produced a number of monumental picture cycles based on Rubens’ sketches (The History of Marie de Médicis, c. 1622–25, Louvre, Paris). Many of Rubens’ students and assistants (A. van Dyck, J. Jordaens, F. Snyders) helped execute these cycles. Because the same devices were used in each of these works, many of them seem conventional.

In the 1620’s, Rubens’ portraits of members of the aristocracy were distinguished by striking luminosity (Maria de Médicis, c. 1622–25, Prado, Madrid). During this period the artist also painted simpler, more intimate portraits (The Maid of the Infanta Isabella, Ruler of the Netherlands, c. 1625, Hermitage). Rubens’ portraits are remarkable not so much for their depth of psychological characterization as for their special ability to transmit an extraordinary vitality, the visible manifestations of which idealize the subject yet give the sitter an unusual emotional persuasiveness. Rubens’ brush reproduced the most precise color and textural nuances of human skin, enabling the viewer to feel the beating of hot, pulsating blood in the transparency and warmth of human flesh.

In 1625 the ruler of Flanders entrusted Rubens with difficult diplomatic missions. Rubens was sent to Holland (1627), Spain (1628–29), and England (1629–30).

Rubens’ canvases of the 1630’s, almost all of which were executed by the artist himself, are characterized by greater individualization than seen in his previous works. They are also marked by a more subdued technique and express an inner warmth of emotionality. Central to Rubens’ late work is the image of his second wife, Helena Fourment, whom the artist depicted in mythological and biblical compositions (Bathsheba Receiving David’s Letter, c. 1635, Dresden Picture Gallery). Rubens also painted several portraits of his wife (Helena Fourment With Fur Coat, c. 1638–40, Historical Museum of Art, Vienna). In these works the artist rejected surface effects and concentrated on transmitting a vivacious, blooming beauty. Cheerfulness exudes in Rubens’ scenes from folk life (The Kermesse, c. 1635–36, Louvre). The artist produced most of his best landscapes in the 1630’s (Landscape With Rainbow, c. 1632–35, Hermitage).

Rubens’ virtuosity is also evident in his numerous sketches (sketches for the decoration of Antwerp for the arrival of the Infante Ferdinand, 1634–35) and drawings. His drawings are noted for their subtle perceptiveness, complex arrangement of ornamental dots and curves, and—sometimes—strict and well-thought-out economy of expressive means. Rubens greatly influenced the development of Flemish painting and European painting in general.


Correspondance … et documentsépistolaires, vols. 1–6. Antwerp, 1887–1909.
In Russian translation:
Pis’ma. Moscow-Leningrad, 1933.


Gershenzon, N. M. Rubens. Moscow-Leningrad, 1938.
Nevezhina, V. M. Rubens. [Leningrad] 1938.
Dobroklonskii, M. V., compiler. Risunki Rubensa. Moscow-Leningrad, 1940.
Kuznetsov, Iu. I. Risunki Rubensa. Moscow, 1974.
Lazarev, V. N. “Rubens.” In Starye evropeiskie mastera. Moscow, 1974. (Pages 9–54.)
Varshavskaia, M. Kartiny Rubensa v Ermitazhe. Leningrad, 1975.
Arents, P. Rubens—Bibliographie. Brussels, 1943.
Stechow, W. Rubens and the Classical Tradition. Cambridge, Mass., 1968.
White, C. Rubens and His World. New York [1968].
Rubens Before 1620. Princeton, 1972.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.