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Mr. Burgher's Art Facts

Peter Paul Rubens

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About Mr.B

Peter Paul Rubens: June 28,1577-May 30,1640...Flanders (Holland)

"Sir, when their backsides look good enough to slap, there's nothing more to do."
~Peter Paul Rubens

As mentioned, one of the most popular and followed artists of this time, and arguably one of the most educated and brilliant artist of all time, was Peter Paul Rubens. He was born at a unique time in history. Rubens' father, Jan Rubens, was a successful lawyer in Antwerp, Flanders (today it is in Belgium). Peter Paul's dad was a bit of a player. It seems as though he hooked up with Anna of Saxony. She was the mean, unattractive, yet crazy wife of Dutch leader, William I. Jan was her legal advisor and they both converted to Calvinism in a religiously Roman Catholic area. The work and religion turned into romance and Anna and Jan's illegitimate daughter, Christina, was born in 1571. Soon after, he was arrested. Jan was released and returned to his wife, Maria. About nine months after getting out of jail, Maria and Jan's son was born in Siegen, Westphalia (modern day Germany). All was good, well, except the family was forced off their property and they exiled themselves. Upon Jan’s death, Maria returned home to Antwerp with her three children. It was then that young Rubens began his education studying languages, but would quickly transition to art, specifically painting, at some point in his teenage years. He studied from Antwerp artists: landscape painter Tobias Verhaecht, religious artist and teacher Adam van Noort, and classically trained humanist Otto van Veen. It would surely have been van Veen that influenced Rubens to take his studies to Rome, Italy around 1600. There, he was even more deeply impacted by the Renaissance works of Titian, Michelangelo Bunarroti, and Raphael Sanzio. It was there that he also had a shared influence with Michelangelo Caravaggio. After about eight years of study in Italy he returned home to Antwerp largely due to the news that his mother was deathly ill. Soon, after returning home, he was noticed as an artistic powerhouse and given a job as the court painter for Archduke Albert of Brussels.

It was after coming home that Rubens met Isabella Brandt, the daughter of an important Antwerp citizen. Although she was nearly half his age, they would be married in 1609 and have three children. Rubens said that his wife was "free of moodiness and of the usual weaknesses of women." One of Rubens’ first major paintings was created shortly after his marriage. "I'm just a simple man standing alone with my old brushes, asking God for inspiration." That inspiration came in the form of his first major work, Raising of the Cross. This was created as an alter display for the Gothic cathedral of Saint Walburga in Antwerp. This work is an incredible example of his skills and one of my personal favorite religious painting of all time. Painted as a triptych (three panels that work together as one work of art), this work truly shows the impact that the Renaissance artists had on his style. This is a great example for Rubens’ mastery of color and composition with the 45-degree angle of the cross. His use of light and shadow to add drama, chiaroscuro, in this artwork. The draftsmanship is exceptional based on any standard and his imagination was superb.

Raising of the Cross
1610. Oil on panel, 15 feet 2 inches x 11 feet 2 inches. (centre panel). O.L. Vrouwekathedraal, Antwerp, Belgium.
His growing popularity translated into a hugely productive studio, due to the aid of many students and assistants. His most popular student was Sir Anthony Van Dyck, with Rubens saying the Van Dyck was "my best pupil". This workshop produced some 3,000 paintings, but only about 600 were worked by the actual hand of Rubens. How did that happen? To keep up with the high demand for Rubens’ paintings, the assistants created the paintings based on Rubens’ sketches. But with high demand came access to people of higher and higher status. He painted for Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, King Sigismund III of Poland and Sweden and other nobility. His connections also lead to other opportunities for this artist.

Isabella died of the plague in 1626. Although Rubens was crushed, this allowed him to explore other interests outside Antwerp. Rubens was always quite interested in politics. He first got into politics by creating works for the top nobility like French leader Louis XIII. This soon led to a post as the Protestant Ambassador to Spain in 1628. While in Spain he was a mentor to Diego Velázquez and painted for King Philip IV. He also went on to meet with English monarch, Charles I, who knighted the artist and the University of Cambridge gave him an honorary masters degree. This appointment soon was up and he was on the way back home. As Rubens' once said, "My passion comes from the heavens, not from earthly musings." Back in Antwerp, he was coming home an extremely wealthy man. He was still getting paid a considerable amount of money for “his“ paintings. Firmly believing that being skilled and rich was a gift from God, he would say "Each morning I shoo the beggars and cripples from my door stoop. If God wanted these vermin to eat surely he would provide them with substance." He bought a large chunk of land outside of the city called the Castle of Steen, but also had his studio in town. This property would soon become the subject of several of his landscape paintings. He also decided it was time to get remarried. He was fifty-three and wanted companionship. He found that in his second wife, Hélèna Fourment, a sixteen year old girl form Antwerp whose father was a wealthy silk merchant. Riddled with arthritis, the master gave up painting in his later life. He died at home in Antwerp of heart failure.

Like all of the great artists we are exploring, Rubens' impacted the lives of so many great artists the followed him, including Eugène Delacroix and Pierre Auguste Renoir. What would this master say to the student of today? "Every child has the spirit of creation. The rubbish of life often exterminates the spirit through plague and a souls own wretchedness."

Raising of the Cross

Mr. Mike Burgher * PO Box 247 * Dallas Center, Iowa. 50063