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Peter Paul Rubens: Baroque painter and diplomat

Suzanne Cords ad
February 8, 2018

An exhibition in Frankfurt's Städel museum explores the work of the Flemish painter, as well the precursors and contemporaries who influenced him. Rubens dominated the 17th-century art world like perhaps no other artist.

Frankfurt Städelmuseum Rubens Kraft der Verwandlung
Image: KHM-Museumsverband

Peter Paul Rubens' success as one of the 17th century's most influential artists was far from predestined. He was born on June 28, 1577, in the town of Siegen in the western part of present-day Germany, the sixth out of seven children in the family of lawyer Jan Rubens and his wife Maria Pypelincks. Both parents came from of Antwerp in present-day Belgium, but religious upheaval had forced the family to flee the Flemish city prior to Rubens' birth. Only after his father's death did the family move back to Antwerp, where the young Peter Paul served as a page boy for Countess Marguerite de Ligne.

Antwerp guild and Italian architecture

However, Rubens wanted to achieve a lot more in his life than this court position; above all else, he wanted to paint. He sought out apprenticeships with some of the most significant artists of his era, among them Tobias Verhaecht, Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen. Rubens had just turned 21 years old when he was accepted as a master into the guild of Saint Luke, an Antwerp-based association for those in the painting trade. 

Read more: Painter Madeline von Foerster reinterprets the Flemish masters

Two years later, he moved to Italy where he became the court painter of Duke of Mantua. Deeply impressed by Italian buildings, he studied architecture and the arts of antiquity, themes which continued to influence him throughout his life.

Read more: The multiple renaissances of Italian painter Botticelli

'The Judgement of Paris' by Peter Paul Rubens
'The Judgement of Paris' by Peter Paul RubensImage: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

After his mother fell seriously ill, he moved back to Antwerp in 1608. His reputation as an excellent painter had long spread to his hometown, so the city's representatives did their best to keep him there. They showered him with praise, lucrative jobs, and even the promise of tax exemption. They also offered him the enticing position of court painter to Austrian Archduke Albert VII and his wife, Spanish princess Isabella Clara Eugenia, who at the time were the sovereign rulers of the Netherlands. Rubens stayed in Antwerp and became rich.

A massive studio

The former home of the Flemish painter, today a museum, is proof of his huge success. Rubens himself designed the building, modeling it after an Italian palace. It also housed his studio, in which he employed up to 100 painters at a time.

The large workshop was necessary because Rubens' art was much sought-after. It would have been impossible for him to complete all his commissions by himself. Instead, he frequently created only the draft of a work and left its completion to his employees, who included such illustrious artists as Anthony van Dyck, Frans Snyders and Jan Bruegel the Elder

Rubens 'The Power of Transformation'
'Prometheus Bound' is attributed Rubens and Frans Snyders, who painted the eagleImage: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Rubens loved bright colors

Rubens became known for his bright colors, well-balanced proportions, figures in motion and full-figured women. This last stylistic tendency even gave rise to the expression "Rubenesque," which refers to a figure of pleasant and ample plumpness. 

He increasingly painted for the nobility, including the French Queen Marie de' Medici and her son King Louis XIII, as well as the English King Charles I. 

Rubens didn't limit himself to working in his studio. He also served as an advisor at the royal courts in Madrid, Paris, The Hague and London. His even used his diplomatic talents to help negotiate a ceasefire between Catholic Spain and the Protestant Netherlands, who were at war with each other following the religious Reformation. Hardly any other artist had such a deep impact on politics during this era.

Rubens also managed to combine his own business and politic interests. His diplomatic missions often profited from his business contacts, and vice versa. During the 1630s, he focused once again primarily on his art.

Rubens and other artists who influenced him

After suffering from gout for many years, Rubens died in Antwerp on May 30, 1640. He was buried there in the city church of St. Jacobs. After his death, his widow Helene Fourment asked his close colleague Johann Bockhorst to complete his unfinished works.

With his dramatic and large-scale paintings, Peter Paul Rubens influenced Baroque art like no other painter. The exhibition in Frankfurt's Städel Museum, entitled "Rubens: The Power of Transformation," attempts to explore the influences that shaped his art, including such titans of Italian painters as Titian and Tintoretto, and enabling visitors to follow the development of visual subjects and styles. The show also focuses on Rubens' artistic innovations that impacted the following generations of artists.

"Rubens: The Power of Transformation " can be seen at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt from February 8 — May 21, 2018.