Peter Paul Rubens was among the most influential artists in 17th-century Europe. Despite a childhood marred by a scandal that landed his father in prison, Rubens rose to become not only a prominent court painter in the Spanish Netherlands but also a lauded diplomat who worked across Western Europe. With countless biographies written about the artist and exhibitions of his work continuing into the present day, the legacy of this Flemish Baroque artist is hard to overstate.
In this episode, Getty curator Anne Woollett discusses the life of Rubens through 17th-century biographies by three authors: Giovanni Baglione, Joachim von Sandrart, and Roger de Piles.
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ANNE WOOLETT: Rubens is a subject that’s really hard to reach the ends of, if you will. The extent and the breadth of his output and the richness of his life calls for constant investigation.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Getty curator Anne Woollett about the life of the northern Baroque master painter, Peter Paul Rubens.
Peter Paul Rubens was perhaps the most celebrated painter of the 17th century. He was born into an accomplished family—his father was the legal advisor to the second wife of William I of Orange. He received a Renaissance humanist education and studied under the leading Antwerp painters of the day. He traveled to Rome, where he was influenced by the art of Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, and Caravaggio, and then to Spain on a diplomatic mission to the court of Phillip III. There he studied the king’s extensive holdings of paintings by Titian. Rubens also served on diplomatic missions to Paris and London.
I discuss the life and work of Rubens with Getty curator Anne Woolett, with whom I discussed the lives of Rembrandt and Velazquez on earlier episodes of this podcast. As in those cases, our conversation here was prompted by the publication of a book in the Getty series Lives of the Artists.
Thanks, Anne, for joining me on this episode of the podcast. It’s always good to talk with you.
ANNE WOOLETT: Great to see you, Jim.
CUNO: Now today, we’re gonna talk about another Getty Publication book in the series Lives of the Artists. We’re discussing three texts on the life of the painter Peter Paul Rubens, who with Rembrandt, Velázquez, and the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, was the most powerful artist of the seventeenth century. The three biographical texts we’ll be discussing were written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by Italian, German, and French authors, just to give our listeners a sense of the scale of Rubens’ early reputation.
But before we consider these early texts, give us a sense of Rubens’ career and importance in the history of art.
WOOLETT: Well, Rubens was an enormous figure, a towering intellect, but also a great artistic, generative force. I think it’s hard to overstate his significance for the art of the seventeenth. He was an immensely creative individual, whose imagery was new, often, and embodied a combination of ideas from the antique and the Renaissance, native Netherlandish traditions, and then these new ideas. So he brought in a really new style and a new vigor, and a new scale often, to painting.
CUNO: So he was influential on the painting style of other artists.
WOOLETT: Well, yes. He trained many students. And in fact, the dominance of this manner of painting, this muscular, kind of dynamic, vigorous style of painting became, at least in the first half of the seventeenth century, a leading influence in the northern part of Europe.
CUNO: What about his early days and his early training itself? In what studio was he initially painting?
WOOLETT: Well, he trained initially with three artists in Antwerp. And he moved swiftly, really, through the first two. He trained with Tobias Verhaecht, who was a landscape painter, someone that’s not widely known today. A fine artist with a good standing in Antwerp, but not necessarily an international figure. Then he moved to the studio of Adam van Noort, who was also a very important history painter. This was a studio were Rubens probably had a chance to really think about a bigger career, in terms of prestige and status.
But he was a very well-educated artist, an artist with an Humanist education. And he moved then to the studio of Otto van Veen, who was known also as Otto Vaenius. This was a sort of pictor doctus, a learned painter who had been to Italy, had a great knowledge of the Classical past, a collector. Rubens spent a couple of years there. Then by 1597 he goes on to become a master painter in his own right.
CUNO: So how long was he a student before he became a painter in his own right, a mature painter?
WOOLETT: He started painting as a student painter, probably learning the, you know, important rudiments, preparing his panels and his paints and things like that, around 1592. We don’t know exactly the timing of his movements through all of the studios, except that he spends three years or so, four years, with Otto van Veen, ending, as they say, in his registry in the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp.
And then he works for the last couple of years of the last decade of 1590s in Antwerp, but probably in proximity to Otto van Veen’s studio. Maybe the two masters worked together; they had kind of an affinity. And it was an important time in Antwerp, which had had a pretty tough time in the religious struggles. The economy is difficult, but the city’s rebuilding, and they receive the new archdukes, who will be ruling the province of the southern Netherlands on behalf of the King of Spain. So this is Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabel.
CUNO: He came from a modestly well-to-do family, and a very influential family in the region. Tell us about that.
WOOLETT: Yes, his family has long roots in Antwerp. His father held an important civic position. He was a lawyer who had been trained in Italy. But really, it’s the religious upheavals that send the family to a safer location in what is noW Germany, to Cologne and to Siegen. The town of Siegen is where Rubens himself was born in 1577. And he and his brothers and sisters are there. Their early life is sort of clouded by a major scandal. Their father, Jan Rubens, has an affair with the wife of a member of the House of Orange. And this is a crime that puts him into jail and causes severe hardship for the family. But Jan dies there in Germany, and then Rubens’ mother brings the family back to Antwerp.
CUNO: How does an artist like Rubens pass from one of these more senior artist’s studios to another, till he becomes an artist in his own right? You mentioned the Guild of Saint Luke. Tell us about that, what that was, and how that helped the career of Rubens.
WOOLETT: Antwerp had a professional painters’ guild that was actually quite a large organization that included other artisans within it; but the painters were the largest group in the Guild of Saint Luke. And it was necessary to join the guild in order to earn one’s living as a painter in the city. This is [a] very typical setup, something that we find throughout Europe. And often, a painter would submit a masterpiece, a work of art that showed that they were capable of painting at a certain standard and that their training was finished.
The artistic training of painters in Antwerp is an interesting subject. It follows a general trajectory of probably starting with some fairly practical processes of mixing paints, of choosing good wood panels to paint on. But particularly the practice of developing your hand and eye, learning to draw, drawing from small models. It seems very likely that Rubens would’ve had access to small plaster casts of antiquities in Rome, for example, maybe small bronzes. This is a way that they learned about anatomy, which was not necessarily directly from the live model sitting in front of them.
And then it seems in Rubens’ case, because perhaps his family standing may have helped him a little bit, he was able to make some choices about his training. Ordinarily, a young student who was coming to train would agree to remain in the studio for a certain amount of time. It was sort of free labor for the master painter. In Rubens’ case, maybe he fulfilled his agreements with his masters and was allowed to proceed to study with the individual with whom he wanted to better understand the style and the sort of capabilities.
CUNO: So when does Rubens go to Rome, and how old was he?
WOOLETT: Rubens was twenty-three when he makes the journey to Rome in 1600. He leaves in May. He needed a passport to get there. He had to be allowed to leave, essentially, the southern Netherlands. But this is—
CUNO: What does that mean? Why did he have to get permission to leave?
WOOLETT: The archducal government kept track of its citizens, particularly its leading citizens. So one left with the blessing and the knowledge of the government, to travel. And it would have been a trip that was perhaps arranged through his teacher, his former teacher, Otto van Veen.
But this enabled him to follow a trajectory that many Antwerp artists who were ambitious had followed in the years before him. It was not unusual, though not every artist could do it. But it was necessary to establish a level of reputation and prestige.
CUNO: And when he got to Rome, did he paint in Rome? And did he have enough time to be able to go to other artists’ studios or to go to collections and to be influenced by the collections he saw?
WOOLETT: So Rubens’ first stop on his trip was Venice. And it’s in Venice, where he’s undoubtedly looking at Titian and Veronese and Tintoretto, that he makes contact with the ducal household in Mantua, the Gonzaga. And he seems to have been invited to the court in Mantua. And that’s where he begins his Italian career, in a sense. He’s in Italy for eight years. After 1600, he’s based in Mantua, which is a phenomenally interesting court, a very high level of culture.
And there at that court, he did paint portraits; but he also, because I think he was an erudite and well-mannered Fleming, he was given some diplomatic responsibilities. And in fact, he makes a journey to Spain, accompanying a major gift from the Gonzaga to King Philip III.
CUNO: Why would he be invited or instructed to do that?
WOOLETT: He represented that interesting kind of liminal career, in a way, where he was knowledgeable in languages and in cultural issues, and was a responsible individual. I think Rubens was already understood to be a person of stature and gravitas, even though he was very young. He didn’t occupy an important enough position at the Mantuan court to be indispensable there.
It’s a big responsibility. The few letters that survive from this period, Rubens writes about some of the challenges he faced on the journey. One of the gifts from the Mantuan court were these fabulous horses that are bred there. And there were very special preparations needed to keep the horses looking good. And Rubens talked about that.
He accompanied a shipment of paintings that were a gift. It was difficult to travel with works of art, and they encounter all sorts of bad weather, once they got to Spain. It was a fairly long crossing. But I think, you know, Rubens probably anticipated a wonderful opportunity to see Spain, to understand better what that court was like.
He was confident enough to make contacts, as well as he could in a very closed court system in Spain, to obtain important commissions. And so he paints the extraordinary and very remarkable, almost life-sized equestrian portrait of the Duke of Lerma, for example, who was the first minister to the King of Spain.
CUNO: And when he got to Madrid and to the court, was he able to paint much? And was he able to see the collections and be influenced by the collections?
WOOLETT: Well, so this is Rubens’ first visit to Spain. And on this visit, unlike the one he makes in the late 1620s, he doesn’t seem to see a lot of the royal collections of the Spanish household at that point. He would not have had access, in a sense. His own stature was not significant enough to be granted to some of the more interior parts of the court life.
CUNO: So after Spain, does Rubens go back to his home in Antwerp, or does he go to Italy?
WOOLETT: Well, he comes back to the Italian peninsula. And he spends two important periods in Rome, where his brother Philip, who’s an older brother, is working. And his older brother is a very learned philosopher and scholar of antiquity. And the two were good friends. And the painter, Peter Paul, benefitted from the contacts that his brother Philip had made in Rome amongst the cognoscenti and important patrons. And it seems likely that our painter Rubens was able to see important Roman collections that were not necessarily easy to access.
CUNO: So when he gets back to Antwerp, he’s a flourishing painter, confident, mature painter.
WOOLETT: Indeed. He— Rubens returns to Antwerp in late 1608. He’s painted very important altarpieces in Rome, for patrons there. And he comes home, actually, not because he wants to, but because the death of his mother, or in fact, her illness, draws him on the road from Genoa. Between this time in Rome and his return to Antwerp, he spends time in Genoa and paints important large-scale portraits there. So he makes that journey as quickly as possible and he signs his letters, “putting foot into stirrup,” to sort of indicate his haste. But he’s too late, when he reaches home and sadly, his mother’s already passed away.
But it’s an interesting time in Antwerp, and the southern Netherlands in general. There is about to be signed an important peace treaty between the Spanish king and the rebellious northern provinces of the Netherlands, the Protestant provinces. And it seems to suggest—and Rubens writes about this—that there will be peace; and with peace, they hope, will come economic prosperity. And he decides, rather than to return to Italy, which he wanted to, he would stay.
CUNO: I wanna get to the author of the first biography, the first life of the artist Rubens. And this author is named Giovanni Baglione. And he published his first biography of the artist in 1642. Tell us who he was, Baglione.
WOOLETT: Baglione’s a fascinating figure, a painter who is born in Rome. He’s essentially Rubens’ age. He’s eleven years older. And he is important to us as a biographer of Rubens because he’s really writing at the same time that Rubens is living and working. And it seems that the biography of Rubens’ life reflects largely his work in the 1620s.
Baglione is important for our understanding of Roman art in the very first years of the seventeenth century. This is a time where he could have met Rubens, in fact. We don’t have any evidence that they had some important exchange. And in fact, Baglione’s biography doesn’t allude to any personal contact at all. But Rubens was in the city, and Rubens likely would have been aware of the controversies that were swirling around Baglione and Caravaggio.
CUNO: Well what was that?
WOOLETT: Well, the controversy consumed the artistic community of Rome around 1603. Two patrons, members of the Giustiniani family, commissioned paintings from two painters who were different in personal temperament and artistic style. A painting from Caravaggio and a painting from Giovanni Baglione.
The difference between these painters and the comments they made about each other were held, obviously, in sort of the normal places where artists convene, you know, at taverns and in the street. But ultimately, the sense of defamation brought this controversy into the courts, and in 1603, there was a suit of libel in the city. And at the trial, Caravaggio made very disparaging comments about Baglione as a painter. And for this, he was jailed for a couple of weeks. In fact, Baglione was a wonderful painter, and he had a number of colleagues who spoke for him at the trial and said that he was of the first rank.
CUNO: Yeah. What got Baglione to write the life of Rubens, and did he write the lives of other artists?
WOOLETT: Baglione wrote a very important series of biographies, about 200 biographies of artists. He was a very thoughtful writer, in fact. He was interested in larger issues. He wasn’t really a critic per se, so he wasn’t necessarily writing stories about other artists that compared them or contrasted their ways of painting, but he was as clear as possible about their important works. And he was very interested in the status that came from their successes. So he charted, as in the case with Rubens, their other activities—as diplomats or their ability to become wealthy by their art.
CUNO: How do we know how he knew about the lives of the artists?
WOOLETT: Baglione knew about other artists in a variety of ways. And in certain cases, he relied on anecdotal material, probably passed down from students or members of families. And in some cases, the biographies that Baglione writes for us include uncritical use of these anecdotal stories that— to say more a little bit about what some of the common ways of framing artistic practice or artistic personalities.
But in the case of Rubens, he was able to refer directly to works that Rubens created in the city that were important altarpieces, and narrate some of the aspects of their creation, which is an important indicator that Rubens’ status was rather clear, even though he was a young artist from outside the city.
CUNO: He cites an early commission that Rubens received to make paintings for the Roman Church of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, which had been restored by the Archduke Albert of Austria, I assume to be an extraordinarily important patron of the arts. How important was that commission for Rubens’ career and who was the archduke?
WOOLETT: Yes, the paintings for Santa Croce in Gerusalemme was a very important point for Rubens in his trajectory. He’s based in Rome and he’s given the commission to paint three paintings for the titular church of the archduke. So Archduke Albert, a member of the Hapsburg family, had been a cardinal before his marriage. This was the church with which he was associated in Rome. And it’s one of the most important early churches in Rome.
It was founded to house the relics of the true cross and in the passion of Christ, notably, those associated with the Saint Empress Helena, who was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Rubens created these three subjects: Saint Helena with the true cross, mocking of Christ—these two works survive in Grasse, France—and then the elevation of the cross, which has been lost.
Rubens hasn’t been in Rome very long, though, and he’s painting in a style that’s probably still more associated with the late 1590s Antwerp than it is with Rome. So we see strong contrasts of light and shadow. They are intended to be very dramatic images, but they’re a little bit stiff. We don’t see the physical kind of dynamic movement that Rubens would impart once he’s a little bit more mature.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, we know that Baglione saw a number of the paintings that Rubens painted at the time, because he describes them in the book. And he mentions that Rubens returned to his home city of Antwerp, where he entered the court of the Archduchess of Austria. Was this an important court? In other words, I assume the Archduchess of Austria was the wife of the Archduke of Austria.
WOOLETT: Yes. This is a wonderful elevation for Rubens, in a sense. He comes back to Antwerp and is undecided as to what his next steps should be. But almost immediately, Archduke Albert and his wife, the Archduchess Isabel, are working to convince him to stay and to become their court painter.
The archdukes are a fascinating couple. They are ruling jointly in this region of the southern Netherlands. This is a region that roughly corresponds to Belgium today. It is separated at that point from the northern provinces of the Netherlands, which roughly corresponds to what we call Holland. And they are ruling on behalf of the Spanish king.
They are both cultured individuals. The archduchess Isabel, in particular, is the daughter of King Philip II of Spain, and she’s had a remarkable and superb education, and she’s a great connoisseur, or knowledgeable about works of art in particular; as is the Archduke Albert, who’s brought up at the same court in Madrid. So they know a good painter, and they know that Rubens embodies the qualities that they will need to capture their likenesses, their portraits, and to articulate the religious and political messages they have in mind for the southern Netherlands.
I should say it’s important to remember that the archdukes had enough regard for Rubens, and I think he was able to make a strong case, that he didn’t have to move to Brussels, to the court. He was allowed to stay in Antwerp. Although he was one of several painters associated with their court, he was the only one to hold the title that we would roughly equate to court painter. He had very unusual terms. He did not have to register with the Guild of Saint Luke. That meant that he could have as many assistants-slash-students as he needed, wanted.
CUNO: Tell us about the studio. How big was it and how was it structured?
WOOLETT: Well, fairly quickly, Rubens became the head of a large studio. It’s not easy to know exactly how many warm bodies were in it. And he would have had an organization that was very much based on a Renaissance model, where very young men would come and begin the earliest stages of learning how to prepare paintings and watching others work and learning to draw under supervision. We don’t even know their names because they didn’t have to register with the guild.
And these artists, you know, assisted in various ways. They helped create large-scale compositions. Rubens was also inventing very interesting new subjects that were large-scale. And so it was necessary to have many different people working. Rubens oversaw the work of the students and more or less, he would, in some cases, come at a later stage and essentially finish certain works of art with his own kind of intervention, to bring it to life, so to speak. But this is not to say whatsoever that he didn’t paint himself. He was someone who painted constantly.
And one of his major tasks was to design the compositions for ceiling paintings, for tapestries, for other cycles. He did this directly on rather standard-size panels, on which is literally drew in oil, with great rapidity.
CUNO: Now, in the early twenties, Baglione writes of Rubens going to Paris, where he was called to France by the Queen Mother, Maria de Medici, for whom he painted this extraordinary gallery of paintings celebrating her life and marriage to the King of France, Henry IV. Describe that gallery for us and what it meant for his career—that is, Rubens’ career.
WOOLETT: In the 1620s, Rubens has entered a phase of his career in which painting and diplomacy and politics are all closely intertwined. And he’s in Paris on a sort of diplomatic mission, on behalf of the Archduchess Isabel, and he’s making contacts there. And he’s invited as one of the few artists working then, I think, really who could generate a large-scale cycle of historical-slash-biographical subjects for the widowed Queen of France.
And Maria de Medici wanted a cycle that would represent her life, and also the life of her late husband, King Henry IV of France. Rubens started with this cycle for the queen, twenty-four compositions for the Luxembourg Palace, which is where she lived. And then there would be twenty-four corresponding compositions, so to speak, for Henry IV.
This was a really interesting challenge, because there were not many precedents for major painting cycles celebrating the life of female rulers anywhere at that time, much less, you know, in France in particular. Maria de Medici, of course, is an Italian princess. And Rubens was present at her proxy marriage in Florence, actually, in the early 1600s. So it’s full circle, in a sense, for him.
But this is where he demonstrates his diplomatic frame of mind, and also his great command of the tools of a history painter’s trade. So allegory, the use of Classical references, the ability to use virtues to represent actions and activities of an individual that— in her case, she was not a military hero. She was a consort, an important, you know, figurehead. Rubens had to find other ways to express her role in the French society. And on large scale. And he did this by combining mythological elements and creating a series of events stemming from the betrothal and down through the death of her husband.
Rubens created interest and drama in these scenes with a number of different methods that create a sense of continuity and which link the episodes to one another. Often the scenes are set in landscapes. There are elements of weather, there are celestial events, brilliant light effects. They’re absolutely fascinating and very beautiful. And one doesn’t really realize that there isn’t necessarily a specific achievement being noted or it’s anything other than an articulation of an occasion.
CUNO: Now, Baglione mentions Rubens’ diplomatic skills, and we’ve talked about Rubens as a young, as it were, diplomat going off to Madrid to serve as an ambassador. And then we were talking about him being sent to the English court to negotiate peace between the crowns of England and Spain. What were his duties as an ambassador, as a mature now ambassador? Was it a professional set of responsibilities, or was it just his charm and wit?
WOOLETT: Well, after having served the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella very loyally through the sixteen-teens, Archduke Albert dies in 1621, and the archduchess is asked to remain to government the Netherlands singlehandedly.
And she really relied on Rubens. It’s a very interesting phenomenon. She entrusted Rubens to convey her desires for peace between Spain and the Netherlands and with England.
You know, in his capacity as a diplomat, Rubens was never not a painter. So in a sense, his entree to the courts rested on his stature and his fame as a painter. And for some courtiers—in fact, many courtiers—that was a problem, because that was a manual profession and it had no place amongst the exalted elite. But Rubens’ command of languages, his decorum, and his, frankly, I think very imposing stature and personality enabled him to represent the Archduchess Isabel and to speak with individuals about the importance of finding peace and of seeking peace, and what steps could be taken.
He seems to have been a facilitator. And his correspondence suggests he traveled a lot in this capacity. There’re even allusions to somewhat secret meetings in taverns in Ghent, you know, with English ambassadors and— or agents and things. Frankly, some of the people with whom he met and corresponded at home were not very flattering, because they couldn’t understand why they would be speaking with a painter, however well-represented by his sovereign. But it enables Rubens really to travel and to go places that were not maybe so easy for others.
It’s a sad result, in a sense, though. A lot of this effort, a great deal of stress—he was very invested personally in achieving the results that they were seeking. You know, he didn’t necessarily succeed in his efforts. But his efforts were recognized by King Charles I of England, who knighted him, and by King Philip IV of Spain, who also showered him with honors. So at the time, his contribution to the process of securing peace was very clear.
CUNO: And while he was there, he got a number of important commissions. Was it then that he painted the ceiling of the banqueting hall?
WOOLETT: Right. So that was a wonderful commission for this important meeting space in London, in the center of this palace. And you know, Rubens again brought this remarkable understanding of political, allegorical language together to create a kind of visual history and a visual statement of English politics for this coffered ceiling. So it was many separate compositions. They were executed in Antwerp by Rubens and his workshop, and then sent back to London for installation.
CUNO: So it was after he concluded his diplomatic responsibilities and returned to Antwerp that he painted the pictures. They were then taken back to England and installed in the banqueting room?
CUNO: Yeah. Now, following his success in London and Spain, he returned to Antwerp, as we just said, and he painted a portrait of the king and queen and all of the princes, and he was named Secretary and Counselor of the State. Were these just honorifics and decorative honors, or did he have actual political and diplomatic responsibilities serving the archduchess?
WOOLETT: He serves the archduchess Isabel closely until her death. And he found it a quite demanding role, frankly. I don’t think that necessarily the honors associated with the court that he received later in life involved specific day-to-day responsibilities; but it meant that he could be called upon at any time to fulfill a desire that the archduchess might have for him.
She was a very energetic and keen individual. She was someone who went to the battlefield, who was invested in the success and progress of Catholic forces. So this was a dynamic court under this single female ruler.
CUNO: All of these many trips that Rubens took, did he see pictures now? Because we said earlier, when we talked about the first trip to Madrid, he wasn’t of a stature sufficient to allow him access to the great picture galleries, and therefore, to be inspired by the artists that he might have seen for the first time, works by the artists he might’ve seen for the first time. But now he is a great man. So is he in the company of great artists?
WOOLETT: When he makes his second trip to Spain in the late 1620s, he— indeed, he meets Velázquez. And they seem to have a special rapport. And Rubens did paint while he was there. There’re some wonderful anecdotes about Velázquez and Rubens riding in the mountains behind El Escorial, the fabulous palace outside of Madrid. So yes, it was a very different time, and it’s a time when Rubens’ exposure to traditional works by Titian and other Venetian Renaissance painters— very, very important time.
And that exposure imprints his own style in the last decade of his life. So between about 1630 and his death in 1640, we see a much looser brushstroke, a very descriptive kind of brushwork. Flickering, animated, rich color, very much something that suggests the impact of Titian was important.
CUNO: Now, when he’s back in Antwerp, he suffers the loss of his wife. His wife dies. He remarries and he paints these extraordinary paintings of his younger wife. Tell us about that sequence of events.
WOOLETT: Rubens is clear in his letters at the beginning of the 1630s, when he decides to remarry, that it’s a real choice, that he’s marrying someone who is not going to disdain him for his true profession. And he remains devoted to painting. For all of the diplomatic work that he did, it was not necessarily his passion whatsoever. In fact, it was a— I think, something that was something of a trial for him. He was very happy, in a sense, when he was no longer working in a diplomatic capacity.
But he continued to paint. He loved to paint. And he married a daughter of an Antwerp— prominent Antwerp merchant, tapestry merchant, with whom he already had connections. Much is made of the huge age difference. He’s in his fifties and she’s in her teens. But you know, really seen as a moment of rejuvenation for him. And he writes a very unabashed letter to his close friend Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc about this.
And you feel that sense of kind of energy and spring-like attitude in the choice of subjects. He starts to paint a lot of mythological subjects. And we see The Three Graces, we see allegories of bounty and fruitfulness, and we have satyrs chasing nymphs and— It’s a very interesting period of time.
But he’s also beginning to feel the results of this quite rigorous decade that he’s completed in the twenties, and he buys a retreat, if you will, in the countryside called Het Steen. He likes to paint landscapes, and he paints these extraordinary beautiful landscapes of the Flemish countryside and he begins to pull back from public life.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, let’s talk about the next life of Rubens. It was written by the slightly younger German artist Joachim von Sandrart. Who was he and how is his account of Rubens’ life different of that of Baglione’s?
WOOLETT: Von Sandrart is an interesting account. It’s very lively, written by a younger artist, not an artist of particular distinction, but unlike Baglione, who didn’t really insert his own self assessment into the biography of Rubens, von Sandrart is very careful to tell us that his painting was seen by Rubens and that the master politely kind of acknowledged his efforts and seemed very courtly. And von Sandrart’s account is a pleasure to read in some ways, because it’s by someone who spent time in Rubens’ company.
Rubens visits Utrecht in what’s the northern provinces of the Netherlands in 1627. He meets Gerrit van Honthorst, a leading painter there. And it is in this context that Sandrart becomes associated with Rubens and travels with him a little bit. And it gives us an idea of a little bit how Rubens did interact with other artists. He may not have spent a lot of time in Antwerp associating, apart from those artists with whom he worked, of which there were many, and his friends, such as, you know, Bruegel the Elder. He had a very important artistic community there.
But in terms of, you know, maybe traveling to speak with other artists and things, he was not doing that so frequently, potentially. So when he makes this trip to the north, he takes time to meet the leading artists, and von Sandrart is there to tell us about it.
CUNO: Does von Sandrart read Baglione’s life of the artist? Was he aware of that as an example or a sample of the kind of writing that he must now write?
WOOLETT: It was probably just a little bit too early for von Sandrart to have read Baglione. They’re just about writing about Rubens’ life at the same moment in the twenties. So von Sandrart would’ve been aware of, probably, Karel van Mander’s biography of northern artists, and Vasari writing about Italian artists in the sixteenth century. And he instead using something closer to a travel account, in the case of Rubens.
CUNO: Are there kind of stories that they each tell of Rubens that are fanciful?
WOOLETT: They’re wonderful evocations of character. And they are similar enough to make us think that there’s something to the notion of this extremely calm, dignified, genial, handsome individual.
CUNO: Now, Rubens dies in 1640. What did he leave behind in the way of paintings, oil sketches, and drawings? Was his studio full of things that had not yet been finished or would’ve just been finished and not have been distributed? Were there works by other artists in his collection? What did he leave us?
WOOLETT: Well, Rubens lived in a monumental house, a kind of almost palazzo, in the center of Antwerp, which had a studio where he worked and where his assistants worked with him. And then there was an area for his collection. So he had a designated area for antique sculpture, which had a domed ceiling. And he did have an important collection of paintings, and these included a number of works by sixteenth century Dutch and Flemish artists, by Italian artists, and by his contemporaries, even.
And he had been working hard until his death on major commissions, particularly for King Philip IV and for the hunting lodge of the Torre de la Parada, which is near Madrid, and a number of large mythological subjects. So there were some paintings in the studio that were probably not finished. And there were important inventories drawn up and there were sales following his death. And he had made provision in his will for his children, his son Albert, named for the Archduke Albert, who was the godfather, a Classical scholar in his own right, and carried on some of his father’s work. And so some things were kept by the family, and there were things that were kept by his second wife, Hélène Fourment, such as the famous painting where she’s seen full-length, wrapped in a fur.
WOOLETT: But yes. So there was great eagerness, and fairly immediately, the parts of Rubens’ studio and estate were distributed. And foreign dignitaries, and quite notably, Philip IV, through his agents, wanted to obtain as many paintings by Rubens as possible from that studio.
CUNO: So let’s look at the third life of Rubens, this one by Rogier de Piles, who who lived from 1635 to 1709, or therefore was born just before the death of Rubens. What distinguished his life of Rubens from the two earlier lives?
WOOLETT: Well, de Piles was a great defender of Rubens’ style. There had been a very heated debate in the French academy, in which de Piles was a major player. In particular, de Piles defended Rubens’ painting of figures. The notion introduced by critics that parts of Rubens’ bodies were incorrect in proportion or incorrect in articulation were things that de Piles pushed back on, as a way of defending the importance of color over the primary goal of design.
It’s a complex subject, in a sense, but really, the debate in the French academy was divided between those who followed the arguments of Nicolas Poussin, whose importance was based on correct design, an idea is very intellectual, has a very intellectual premise, based also in the Italian schools of Bologna, where drawing and precision and the rendering human form was the basis for art.
And on the other side, de Piles and other French painters looked to the Italian Renaissance, to Titian for example, and to Rubens as great artists who were able to create convincing compositions through color and through the optical qualities of painting form.
Rogier de Piles had a real advantage over the earlier biographers of Rubens. He had a biography of Peter Paul Rubens written by his nephew, Philip Rubens. And this is very crucial because it really provides some very specific information about Rubens’ earliest career, about the time that he is training in the 1590s, and his work with Otto van Veen. So these very specific details, which are not covered by other biographers, are aspects that de Piles brings forth in his description of Rubens’ life.
CUNO: Now, finally, de Piles used a bunch of grapes as a metaphor for the quality of Rubens’ painting that he most admired. What did he mean by that?
WOOLETT: It’s a very telling metaphor and one that’s very astute. It reflects de Piles’s quite sophisticated pictorial, kind of analytical nature. You know, he was a great connoisseur, and his opinion was sought and his ability to critically kind of analyze compositions was admired in his own time. And when he uses this metaphor, he’s referring to the way that there are different separate components of light and dark, and perhaps in a composition, different groupings that together, create a coherent whole. But one can also concentrate on the individual elements.
And so rather than sort of think about this abstractly, if one looks at a Rubens composition, you know, Rubens was an artist who worked in a kind of more or less organic fashion. He had a sense of putting together different components. And you know, he did, as some other artists did as well, he could reuse ideas from different places. But he’s able to put them together so that these elements together form a coherent and often very complex composition of figures.
And this is a great skill that was admired by other artists who might work more academically and in a more fixed fashion to create a composition. Whereas in Rubens’ case, there’s a sense of energy and of kind of a kinetic force that brings together the different elements that he’s painting.
CUNO: What is the legacy of Rubens as a painter in the centuries since he died?
WOOLETT: Well, there was a change in taste in the late seventeenth century. So initially, there was a real turn towards more Classicism in certain areas of Europe. But ultimately, there’s a tremendous appreciation for the magnitude of his work, which is comprised not simply of the physical execution and the deftness and the assurance and the variety of paintings that he made, but the intellectual component, which is unrivaled really in his time in the north part of Europe.
This is an artist who had deep understanding of not only Biblical subjects, but of subjects from the Antique, and was able to compose and invent new subjects from these sources.
And Rubens’ legacy was, in fact, a physical legacy. The sheer output that he was able to attain with a workshop that was highly organized, that reflected his inventions, in terms of the composition and the subject matter, and then transmit them through this highly descriptive style that was able to be replicated.
Rubens left his mark on a tremendous number of different media. He was a designer of tapestries. He created small panel paintings for connoisseurs. He created large altarpieces that were seen in churches. And he created a visual language that seemed utterly Flemish.
CUNO: Now, we could talk about the literary legacy of Baglione and Sandrart and de Piles and these three early lives, because there’s a virtual mile of books published on the life and the career of Rubens. His whole Corpus Rubenianum that documents the lives of the artist as we know it and the character of the paintings that he painted and so forth. Is his reputation still today as high as it was in my early years of graduate school, you know, forty years ago?
WOOLETT: There’s tremendous interest in Rubens these days. It’s so exciting to see it. There are regularly exhibitions of his work, and there’ve been a number in the last couple of years, which look at all facets of his output. Rubens is a subject that’s really hard to reach the ends of, if you will. The extent and the breadth of his output and the richness of his life calls for constant investigation. And we’ve found that he’s a subject that appeals to many viewers, because of the ability to narrate, tell stories in an engaging and exciting fashion. So Rubens continues to be a very, very important artist for all of us.
CUNO: Well, the Getty’s at work preparing an exhibition on Rubens, and his relationship to the past—that is, to the ancient past. Tell us about that exhibition.
WOOLETT: Yes, this is an exhibition called Rubens: Picturing Antiquity, that will be shown at the Getty Villa. And this will juxtapose ancient works with the works of art that Rubens produced in response to ancient objects. So it really looks at how works of the Classical past inspired him and reveals the ways that he innovated as a result of the knowledge and as a result of exposure to the ideas from the ancients, as he called them.
CUNO: Yeah, well, we look forward to that exhibition very much. It’s been fun, as always, to talk with you, Anne, on the podcast, and to talk particularly about the lives of the artist. It reinforces the significance of these early lives, that we’re reading them still today.
WOOLETT: Indeed. Thank you, Jim.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts/ or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ANNE WOOLETT: Rubens is a subject that’s really hard to reach the ends of, if you will. The exte...