(June 28, 1577 – May 30, 1640) was a prolific seventeenth-century Flemish Baroque painter, and a proponent of an exuberant Baroque style that emphasized movement, color, and sensuality. He is well-known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, and history paintings of mythological and allegorical subjects. In addition to running a large studio in Antwerp which produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe, Rubens was a classically-educated humanist scholar, art collector, and diplomat who was knighted by both Philip IV, king of Spain, and Charles I, king of England.
Rubens was born in Siegen, Westphalia, to Jan Rubens and Maria Pypelincks. In 1589, two years after his father’s death, Rubens moved with his mother to Antwerp, where he was raised Catholic. Religion figured prominently in much of his work and Rubens later became one of the leading voices of the Catholic Counter-Reformation style of painting.
In Antwerp, Rubens received a humanist education, studying Latin and classical literature. By fourteen he began his artistic apprenticeship with Tobias Verhaeght. Subsequently, he studied under two of the city’s leading painters of the time, the late mannerists Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen. Rubens completed his education in 1598, at which time he entered the Guild of St. Luke as an independent master.
From 1606 to 1608, he was largely in Rome. During this period Rubens received his most important commission to date for the high altar of the city’s most fashionable new church, Santa Maria in Vallicella (or, Chiesa Nuova). The subject was to be St. Gregory the Great and important local saints adoring an icon of the Virgin and Child. The first version, a single canvas (Musee des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble), was immediately replaced by a second version on three slate panels that permits the actual miraculous holy image of the “Santa Maria in Vallicella” to be revealed on important feast days by a removable copper cover, also painted by the artist.
The impact of Italy on Rubens was great. Besides the artistic influences, he continued to write many of his letters and correspondences in Italian for the rest of his life, signed his name as “Pietro Paolo Rubens”, and spoke longingly of returning to the peninsula-a hope that never materialized.
At the time of his death, on May 30, 1640, in Antwerp, Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium), Rubens was one of the most celebrated artists in Europe. He left behind eight children as well as numerous studio assistants, some of whom—most notably Anthony van Dyck—went on to have successful artistic careers of their own.
Rubens’s skill at arranging complex groupings of figures in a composition, his ability to work on a large scale, his ease at depicting diverse subjects and his personal eloquence and charm all contributed to his success. His style combined Renaissance idealization of the human form with lush brushwork, dynamic poses and a lively sense of realism. His fondness for depicting fleshy, curvaceous female bodies, in particular, has made the word “Rubenesque” a familiar term.
Admirers of Rubens’s work included his contemporary, Rembrandt, as well as artists of other regions and later centuries, from Thomas Gainsborough to Eugène Delacroix.