“Before Rubens, no Western artist of equally great talent had been as well born, as well educated, as well mothered, as well placed, or as widely and powerfully patronized. His father, a Protestant lawyer, left Antwerp for Westphalia to escape persecution. There Peter Paul was born and baptized a Calvinist; then his parents separated. Mother and son returned to Antwerp, where he was humanistically schooled, rebaptized a Roman Catholic, and soon became a page at a neighboring court.
“The first key Flemish apostle of Renaissance grandeur had been the far earlier Antwerp master Frans Floris, and Rubens doubtless turned to his achievements for initial guidance. In Antwerp, young Rubens received three successive apprenticeships with local artists: Adam van Noort, Tobias Verhaecht, and the superior Italianate painter Otto van Veen. Rubens stayed with the latter until his first journey to Italy in 1600, where he remained until 1608.
“Among major painters, only Giorgio Vasari, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Eugéne Delacroix may have known as much about art and its history as Rubens did. Significantly, both the English and the French master placed the Fleming among their very favorites, each having been deeply influenced by Rubens’s re-creation of the visual triumphs of Renaissance Venice, Mantua, and Rome, along with those of classical antiquity. Despite great erudition Rubens retained his individuality throughout a long and vastly productive career, for, above all, he was a supreme master of the imagination.
“Young Rubens traveled widely. In Mantua he was attached to the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga, then sent throughout Italy to paint copies for him, and voyaged to Spain in 1603-4 with gifts from Vincenzo to Philip III. The young artist’s other major Italian patronage and study areas were Genoa and Rome, where he was close to the art of the Carracci.
“Due to his later appointments to the courts of the Infanta Isabella and the Archduke Ferdinand, Spanish viceroys of the Netherlands, Charles I in England, Marie de’ Médicí in France, and Philip IV in Spain, much of Rubens’s life was spent “on the road” or in preparing works for export. He also fulfilled massive commissions for leaders of the church and state in Italy, Austria, and Germany, causing him to observe in 1621, “My talents are such that I have never lacked courage to undertake any design, however vast in size or diversified in subject.” Among the keenest admirers of Italian and antique achievements, Rubens also remembered earlier Netherlandish art with its glowing textures, gleaming flesh, and vibrant color harmonies.
“This painter possessed of protean gifts proved to be an effective ambassador, scholar, courtier, humanist, lover and family man, classicist, architect, knight, numismatist, collector of antiquities, print designer, agent-connoisseur-adviser, pageant master, and fervent Roman Catholic. Equipped with rare energy, he would be up by 4:00 A.M. and could paint while dictating a letter and carrying on a conversation with a visitor, all at the same time. The artist was blessed with rare gifts of organization and a sense for realism and idealism. Rubens’s creative, inventive response to conservative theology and to classical values validated the vast pictorial cycles demanded by his patrons. These filled Antwerp’s new Jesuit church and Charles I’s new banqueting hall ceiling at Whitehall. Twenty-four huge canvases of Marie de’ Médicí’s life were painted for the Palais du Luxembourg, and Philip IV’s Torre de la Parada contained 112 mythological subjects designed by Rubens that were largely executed by his colleagues. The dramas of splendid triumphal entries and eucharistic events were celebrated with sketches, etchings, and tapestries as well as vast paintings, for Rubens possessed an unrivaled capacity for commemorating occasion and institution. Affirmation lies at the center of his art; he could accord as much grandeur to the celebration of Flemish peasant life as to the splendor of Marie de’ Médicí’s Parisian court.
“He was that rarest of phenomena, at once a popular painter and an artist’s artist, as close to Constable, Delacroix, or Renoir as to the painters of his own day. A handsome man, gracefully mannered, with beautiful wives and children, Rubens enjoyed harmony’s enviable balance of opposites. While he was profoundly romantic, he was equally rooted in the classical tradition; his Roman Catholic orthodoxy never conflicted with his passion for antiquity. Venus and Virgin are almost interchangeable in the Fleming’s art.
“Rubens was a leading citizen of Europe’s Roman Catholic world, and spoke fluent French, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, making him ideally suited to the ambassadorial role given him by the Infanta. As court painter to Ferdinand and Isabella, Rubens lived with recent memories of religious wars and iconoclasm, of fierce local resistance to the Habsburg empire. The result was that his art often served the neo-orthodoxy of his patrons and that of the Jesuit and other Catholic Orders.
“The Fleming was a shrewd judge of character and talent, and maintained a large, efficient, successful atelier in his little palace of an Antwerp townhouse. Innumerable “Rubenses” that began with his design and ended with a few of his brushstrokes artfully placed where they counted most streamed from Rubens’s very profitable workshop. The artist was also active in collaboration with men like “Velvet” Brueghel, Anthony van Dyck, Frans Snyders, and Daniel Seghers. His status as court painter freed Rubens from registering assistants with the guild, paying taxes, or subscribing to guild rules, all of which contributed to his prosperity.”
From: Colin Eisler, Masterworks in Berlin: A City’s Paintings Reunited