Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens was a Belgian artist and diplomat (1577-1640). He is known as one of the leading figures of Baroque art as well as the Counter-Reformation. His masterpieces include “The Crucifixion of Christ” and “The Assumption of the Virgin”. As a diplomat, he worked for peace between Flanders and the Dutch republic.

Rubens’ Life

 Rubens was born into a legal family near Westphalia, Germany. His parents were from Flanders, but were living in Westphalia at the time of his birth. After his father’s death, the family moved to his hometown of Antwerp.

 Around his mid-teens, Rubens began to study painting under Otto van Veen. In 1598, when he was in his 20s, Rubens became independent as a full-fledged painter.

 Stay in Italy

 In 1600, Rubens traveled to Italy. He stayed in Rome and Venice, where he studied classical antiquity and Renaissance art. For example, Rubens was impressed by the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and Tintoretto of the Venetian school. He was also greatly influenced by Caravaggio, who was painting in Rome at the time, and went on to form Baroque art. He was also commissioned by many patrons to paint their portraits during his stay in Rome.

 Rubens became court painter to the Duke of Mantova. In the early 17th century, he was also entrusted with the role of diplomat and sent to Spain. He was favored by the Duke of Lerma, the de facto Prime Minister of Spain at the time. He was even commissioned to paint a portrait of the Duke of Lerma’s equestrian statue. The following year, he returned to Mantova.

 Return to Flanders: Contribution to the Counter-Reformation

 In 1608, Rubens returned to Antwerp with news of his mother’s serious illness. But his mother died. In Antwerp, his brothers held important political positions. Rubens therefore quickly became acquainted with its ruling class. They became Rubens’ patrons and commissioned him to paint portraits and church altarpieces.

 Rubens had already made a name for himself as a painter due to works made in Italy. So, in 1609, he was appointed court painter to Albrecht and Isabella, then sovereigns of Flanders. So he moved to Brussels.

 At that time, Flanders was known as a part of the Low Countries. The Low Countries were under the rule of the Spanish kings in the mid-16th century. At the end of the 16th century, the northern part of the Low Countries engaged the war to become independent from the Spanish king, which would become the Dutch republic. In contrast, Flanders, while supporting the Spanish king, took part in this war on the side of Spain.

 At the end of the 16th century, King Felipe II of Spain died. He appointed his daughter Isabella and the Austrian Duke Albrecht as sovereigns of the Low Countries. So, at the beginning of the 17th century, they arrived in Brussels as the sovereigns and started to reign. However, their real area of control was only in Flanders, and not in the Dutch republic.

 In the early 17th century, Protestantism was officially recognized and Catholicism was banned in the Dutch republic. In response, there was a growing movement in Flanders to revive and strengthen the Catholic faith and religious practice, which had been weakened by the war. This was the so-called Counter-Reformation movement. The sovereigns Albrecht and Isabella launched this movement in earnest in Flanders. From then on, Flanders became one of the strongholds of the Counter-Reformation.

 It was at this juncture that Rubens became their court painter. Hence, Rubens was also a major painter of the Counter-Reformation. “The Descent of Christ” in Antwerp Cathedral is an example. “The Assumption of the Virgin”, one of his best-known works, is a good example of a painting that defended Catholic doctrine that had been attacked by Protestants. A similar subject is the “Coronation of the Virgin”. The Virgin Mary is crowned by Christ and by God, his Father.

Rubens’ “Coronation of the Virgin”

 Rubens was granted special status as a painter by Isabella and Albrecht. So he was allowed to work freely without being bound by the rules of the guild. He was relieved of his obligation to reside in Brussels and worked mainly in Antwerp. He opened a studio and trained many apprentices. Rubens’ residence in Antwerp served also as a workshop and as a museum with various works.

 He also exchanged with Carlton, the British ambassador to the Dutch republic, his own collection of paintings for Carlton’s collection of statues.

 Painter and Diplomat

 Rubens was also active as a diplomat. As a means of diplomatic negotiation, he even accepted orders for paintings. In Europe at the time, works of art were an important tool for the formation and strengthening of social ties between royalty and aristocracy.
 For example, in the context of Spanish domestic politics, King Felipe III and King Felipe IV acted as patrons, nurturing artists and having them produce outstanding works of art. At the same time, they invited outstanding foreign artists to do the same, or collected outstanding foreign works. Felipe III and IV gave these works as gifts to the domestic nobility in order to facilitate and strengthen their relations with them.
 Works of art naturally played a similar role in international politics and diplomacy. For example, they were used to express respect and gratitude to the sovereigns of other countries. As an artist, Rubens was well aware of this role. He thus made use of his own paintings in his activities as a diplomat.

The Life of Marie de Medicis.

 Rubens also painted many portraits. One of the most famous portraits is “The Life of Marie de Medicis,” which hung in the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. It depicts Marie de Medicis, a mother who tried to keep France under the Roman Catholic faith in the complicated international situation of the time. It was commissioned by Marie to Rubens for the interior of the newly constructed Luxembourg Palace. She initially ordered a series of paintings of Marie and that of her husband Henri IV for each of the two rooms of the palace. The series of paintings related to Marie is “The Life of Marie de Medicis”. In connection with this work, Rubens visited Paris in 1623 and 1625.

 However, the series of paintings of Henri IV was never completed. This was due to a conflict between Marie and Cardinal Richelieu, who was the Vizier of France during this period. The conflict between Marie and Richelieu intensified in the late 1620s. In the end, Richelieu won by maintaining the confidence of King Louis XIII of France; Marie was finally expelled from the court in 1631.

 Marie then went into exile in the Spanish Netherland, where she sought help from its governor-general. The governor-general entrusted Rubens with the task of supporting Marie. Rubens thus negotiated with Spain to support Marie. But Spain had its hands full with the Thirty Years’ War and the war with the Dutch republic. So it did not want to aggravate its relations with France. Therefore, Rubens’ negotiations failed. Marie would later die in Cologne, Germany, impoverished. Therefore, the series of paintings of Henri IV by Rubens was never completed.

 Attempt to Make Peace with the Dutch republic

 Beginning in 1621, the armistice between Spain and the Dutch republic ended and war resumed. At this time, Rubens played an active role as a diplomat. For example, he was sent to negotiate a peace or further armistice treaty between them. He was also involved in negotiating a peace or truce between England and Spain, working with England’s Lord Buckingham. He was sent to France, Spain, England, and Germany.

In the end, no peace or truce with the Dutch republic was achieved. With the death of the above-mentioned governor-general in 1633, Rubens finally stepped down from his diplomatic duties.

 Late Years

 From then, Rubens devoted himself to the creation of art. For example, he produced a series of paintings of King James I of England, which he sent to England; in 1635, he moved back to his hometown of Antwerp. When the new governor-general of the Spanish Netherlands held his joyous entry in Antwerp, he oversaw the decorations. He was appointed court painter by the new governor, and died there in 1640.


 Figures associated with Rubens

Marie de Medicis: Mother of the King of France and Regent. She was also Rubens’ patron and was deeply involved in his diplomacy. It was Marie who brought a famous French figure into the world of politics.

Recommended or Selected References

今井澄子編『ネーデルラント美術の精華 : ロヒール・ファン・デル・ウェイデンからペーテル・パウル・ルーベンスへ』ありな書房, 2019

中村俊春『ペーテル・パウル・ルーベンス : 絵画と政治の間で 』三元社, 2006

Lisa Rosenthal, Gender, politics, and allegory in the art of Rubens, Cambridge University Press, 2005