Biography of Rubens

Biography of Rubens

Artist, marketeer, scientist, diplomat and family man. Rubens was an extraordinary talent, but also a down-to-earth man. He loved life. Sometimes unassuming, sometimes highly effusive. Often voracious, but also modest at times. Which Rubens do you recognise in yourself? 

Single mother

28 June 1577: In the German town of Siegen, Jan Rubens and Maria Pijpelinckx become the proud parents of Peter Paul. Rubens is barely ten years old when he loses his father. He returns to Antwerp two years later with his mother, brother Philip and sister Blandina. The city his parents had fled twenty years earlier because, as Protestants, they were not safe in the Catholic Netherlands.  

Smart (yet wilful) young man

Rubens quickly knows what he wants to be when he grows up: a history painter. He goes to Latin school and works as a page for the Countess de Ligne. She teaches Rubens the ways of a nobleman, and brushes up his language skills. His mother sees it as the ideal springboard to a career. As a teenager, he is away from home for months at a time. But Rubens doesn't lose sight of his dream, and pushes on.  

A dangerous game

Rubens might never even have existed. Before Peter Paul was born, his father Jan was sentenced to death for his affair with Anna of Saxony. Not only was she his mistress, she also happened to be the second wife of Prince William of Orange. That's clearly asking for trouble ... Thanks to his mother Maria, and after two years in the dungeons, the death sentence was commuted to exile in Siegen, Westphalia.  

From apprentice to master

A sketchbook containing 42 ink drawings after a series of prints by painter Hans Holbein offer the first glimpse of Rubens' precocious talent. He was only 12 at the time. Of his three tutors, Otto van Veen in particular leaves his mark. The 'learned painter' introduces Rubens to intellectual circles. In 1598, he joins the Guild of St Luke, the Antwerp association of artists and craftsmen. 

Hidden messages

Back in the 16th century, paintings were full of symbolism. Hares represented vigilance and cats symbolised freedom. Van Veen turned Rubens into a master of symbolism. Look carefully, because his paintings read like a book.  

Dolce Italia

The young twenty-something was now an accomplished painter. But he wants to continue refining his skills and, from 1600 onwards, he travels through Italy in search of the high points of Italian Renaissance art and classical antiquity. It is a long-cherished dream, and a decisive chapter in his subsequent career. Although Rubens is not really focused on pursuing a career. He calls painting his 'dolcissima professione': a delightful profession. 

I have not given up hope that my wish will still come true: to move to Italy. In fact, this dream grows stronger day by day. I declare here and now that, if Fortune does not allow it, I will live and die an unhappy man.

Peter Paul Rubens

In Rome, Rubens learns by taking it all in. More than anyone, he immerses himself in the work of his illustrious Italian predecessors. Their creations, classical antiquity and his many 'copies' remain a lifelong source of inspiration. But after eight years, Rubens longs to return home. His mother is gravely ill and the local nobility are clamouring for his attention. He eventually returns to Antwerp, but still has doubts.…  

I am undecided: do I stay in my own country or return to Rome, where I receive invitations with extremely favourable terms? But here, too, they are doing all they can to keep me here. All kinds of praise is lavished on me.

Peter Paul Rubens
A new passion

Love ultimately keeps him here, in Antwerp. Rubens falls head over heels for the charms of local girl Isabella Brant. Now 32, he has a wife and a steady job: court painter to Archdukes Albert and Isabella, the rulers of the Southern Netherlands. Apart from the sovereign, he is answerable to no one. That's the way he likes it.  

Palace on the Scheldt

Once back in Antwerp, Rubens' career steps up a gear. In 1610, he purchases a house with land on the Wapper. He transforms it into an Italian palazzo, with a colourful garden. Here he works, studies, takes care of business and throws parties. He receives leading figures from all over the world. This is where he lives life. To the full! In good days and bad.   

Within budget

For 8960 guilders - about 150.000 euros today - plus one of his own paintings, he picks up the property on the Wapper for a bargain. But the renovations and extension, with a sculpture museum, portico, studio, garden and accompanying pavilion, is a drain on the finances. The wages of the two gardeners, maids, butler and other house staff also come out of the monthly budget. Rubens keeps a close eye on the expenses. 

I have spent many thousands of florins on my home this year," Rubens wrote to British diplomat Sir Dudley Carleton in 1618. "And I don't want to exceed my budget on a whim. After all, I am not a prince, but someone who lives by his handiwork.

Peter Paul Rubens
State-of-the-art

Rubens makes an impression with his construction work. With good reason, because what he builds has never been seen in our part of the world. His dome on top of the semi-circular sculpture museum is also a first. He bases the design on the world-famous Pantheon in Rome, the city where he has spent so much time. 

Helping hands

By 1620, Rubens - besides being the father of Clara, Albert and Nicholas - is the greatest painter in north-western Europe. He has admirers around the world, but no airs and graces. And that's despite receiving countless commissions from the church and all the major royal houses, the celebrities of their day. Fortunately, the entrepreneur has a carefully selected team of assistants. He regularly turns down 'unsolicited applications', as he did in a letter to writer Jacob de Bie: 

I cannot possibly accept the young man you recommend to me, because I get requests from all and sundry, so some stay with other masters for several years until I have a place for them.

Peter Paul Rubens
Everything under control

Besides Jacques Jordaens - who was to become Antwerp's leading artist after Rubens' death - child prodigy Anthony van Dyck also works in his studio for a while. He can pull off Rubens' style so convincingly that he sometimes acts as a stand-in.

In 1620, Rubens even entrusts the ceiling paintings in Antwerp's Charles Borromeo Church to 'il miglior mio discepolo' or 'my very best student'. Extraordinary, because Rubens prefers to keep the reins in his own hands. And several reins at the same time, effortlessly. His talent for multi-tasking also catches the eye of a visitor to his studio called Otto Sperling, a physician at the Danish royal court: 

The great artist was at work. While he was painting, he was listening to a recital of the works of Tacitus in Latin, and dictating a letter at the same time. We remained silent, so as not to disturb him with our chatter, but Rubens started talking to us himself while he continued working, listening and dictating. He answered all our questions, testifying to his astonishing abilities.

Otto Sperling
Smart marketeer

Rubens did not need any posts, stories or reels to become world-famous. You could actually call him the very first influencer. With no Wi-Fi, but with a network of engravers. They made prints of his paintings, to promote them to the general public. Across borders. Privileges from the state protected the works against counterfeiting. Copying Rubens was regarded as industrial espionage. Rubens himself was terrified of swindlers, as can be seen in the note he wrote to faithful employee Lucas Faydherbe when he was away: 

If you leave Antwerp, will you make sure that everything is locked and that no paintings or sketches are left in the studio upstairs? Will you also remind Willem, the gardener, to get us some pears or figs when they're ripe, if there are any, or something else tasty from the garden? Please come as soon as you can, so the house can be locked. Because as long as you are there, others can enter too.

Peter Paul Rubens
Secret agent

From 1621, Rubens once again demonstrates his versatility. As the secret agent of Archduchess Isabella, he negotiates a tentative peace between Spain and England. Because that will also ensure peace between the Northern and Southern Netherlands, crucial for prosperity in and around Antwerp. Besides various prestigious commissions, he also earns himself two knighthoods.      

We have the hardships of war without the joys of peace. Our city is decaying like a body afflicted with tuberculosis, gradually withering away. Every day, the number of inhabitants dwindles, and these wretched people can no longer support themselves by their inventiveness or trade.

Rubens to Pierre Dupuy, 28 May 1627
Death haunts Rubens

In the autumn of 1623, tragedy strikes at the Rubens family home. His daughter Clara Serena dies at the age of 12. Rubens struggles with the loss of his cheeky, blushing girl - as he had immortalised her on canvas. He himself had been contending with painful joints for some time, due to gout. Things even take a turn for the worse: on 20 June 1526, his wife dies of the plague. Rubens is inconsolable. 

I have truly lost an outstanding companion, whom one could, yes, had to love with good reason.

Peter Paul Rubens
The lady in red

As the ultimate tribute, he gives his wife a place on the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the world-famous altarpiece of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. Look closely at the figure in the red dress near Mary's open tomb. That's Isabella Brant smiling at you. 

Besotted by Helena

His work as a diplomat means Rubens is rarely at home. He entrusts the upbringing of his two sons to his parents-in-law and his good friend Gaspar Gevartius. But he secretly yearns to return to his home turf. "I would like to return home and stay there for the rest of my life," he wrote in 1629. So that's what he did. Fortunately. Barely a year later, he marries Helena Fourment. A choice made by both the heart and the head.  

I chose a young woman from a decent, albeit bourgeois, family. But everyone advised me to take a noble woman. But I feared haughtiness, that common flaw of the nobility, especially among women, and so I chose a woman who wouldn't blush when she saw me busy with my paintbrushes.

Peter Paul Rubens
Family comes first

On their wedding day, Helena was 16, the same age as Rubens' eldest son. The artist was already 53 by this time. Was that even allowed? Such an arrangement is unthinkable these days, but back then, big differences in age were more common. Peter Paul and Helena love each other deeply. In the space of five years, they have four children together: Clara Johanna, Frans, Isabella and Peter Paul. Rubens entrusts more and more work to his students, and in 1635 he purchases Het Steen castle in Elewijt as a country retreat. The newly formed family spends a lot of time there, and Rubens gets inspiration from the surrounding landscape.    

One last effort

During the summer of 1638, Rubens stays in Elewijt. For health reasons, because his attacks of gout are taking their toll on him. That does not stop him from travelling to Madrid for one of his largest commissions ever: decorating the royal hunting lodge Torre de la Parada for the Spanish king Philip IV. But he doesn't have to work alone. Among others, old friend Jacques Jordaens helps complete the sprawling commission. 

Farewell to an icon

On 9 May 1640, Rubens writes a letter to his good friend Lucas Faydherbe. Probably his last. Exactly three weeks later - on 30 May 1640 - he dies at his home on the Wapper. The people of Antwerp mourn his death and bid him farewell on 2 June with an impressive guard of honour. Rubens is given a final resting place in St James' Church. One portrait he would never get to produce: his youngest daughter Constantia. She is born eight months after her father's death.