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Peter Paul Rubens Biography

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Rubens - Daughters of Leucippus

The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (c. 1618), Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Scan © Mark Harden, used with permission

The Basics:

Peter Paul Rubens was a Flemish Baroque painter, best known for his extravagant "European" style of painting. He managed to synthesize a number of factors -- from the masters of the Renaissance and the early Baroque. He led a charmed life. He was attractive, well-educated, a born courtier and, by dint of talent, had a virtual lock on the portrait market in northern Europe. He was knighted, feted, grew fabulously wealthy from commissions and died before he outlived his talent.

Early Life:

Rubens was born on June 28, 1577 in Siegen, a German province of Westphalia, where his Protestant-leaning lawyer father had relocated the family during the Counter-Reformation. Noting the boy's lively intelligence, his father personally saw that young Peter received a classical education. Rubens' mother, who may not have shared an affinity for the Reformation, moved her family back to Antwerp (where she owned a modest property) in 1567 after her husband's untimely death. At the age of 13, at a time when the family's remaining resources went to provide his elder sister with a marriage dowery, Rubens was sent to be a page in the home of the Countess of Lalaing. The polished manners he picked up there served him well in the years ahead, but after some (unhappy) months he got his mother to apprentice him to a painter. By 1598, he had joined the painters guild.

His Art:

From 1600 to 1608, Rubens lived in Italy, at the service of the Duke of Mantua. During this time he carefully studied the works of the Renaissance masters. Upon his return to Antwerp, he became the court painter to the Spanish governors of Flanders and subsequently to Charles I of England (who, in fact, knighted Rubens for diplomatic work) and Marie de' Medici, Queen of France.

The more well-known works he turned out during the next 30 years include The Elevation of the Cross (1610), The Lion Hunt (1617-18), and Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1617). His court portraits were in great demand, as he frequently placed their subjects in juxtaposition with gods and goddesses of mythology to better acknowledge the lofty positions of nobility and royalty. He painted religious and hunting themes, as well as landscapes, but is best known for his oft-unclothed figures -- he loved portraying girls with "meat" on their bones, and middle-aged women everywhere thank him to this day -- who seem to swirl in movement.

Rubens, who had more requests for work than time, grew wealthy, amassed a collection of art and owned a mansion in Antwerp and a country estate. In 1630, he married his second wife (the first had died some years before), a 16-year-old girl. They spent a happy decade together before gout brought on heart failure and ended Rubens' life on May 30, 1640 in the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium). The Flemish Baroque carried on with his successors, most of whom (particularly Anthony van Dyke) he had trained.

Important Works:

  • The Massacre of the Innocents, 1611
  • The Hippopotamus Hunt, 1616
  • The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, 1617
  • Diana and Callisto, 1628
  • The Judgment of Paris, 1639
  • Self Portrait, 1639

Famous Quote:

"My talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size...has ever surpassed my courage."

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