The great Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens was born on June 28, 1577, in Siegen, Germany; his family moved to Antwerp when he was 10 years old. Well educated and worldly, he lived a remarkable life as an enormously successful painter, diplomat, and linguist, traveling frequently in Europe and receiving prominent art commissions from royal patrons and the Catholic Church. His self-portrait (below) in The Met collection, painted about 1635, shows the urbane, accomplished artist with his young second wife and their son.
Renowned for his exuberant compositions in the Baroque style, Rubens created works with historical, allegorical, and mythological themes as well as portraits and landscapes. The Met houses many examples of the master’s output, including oil paintings, drawings, and engravings. On his 439th birthday we celebrate his portrayals of Venus, whom he depicted with great skill and affection.
The theme appears in multiple works by Rubens, found in art collections around the world. Venus and Cupid (Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid) was painted about 1606–1611. The artist copied it from an oil by Titian, which is confirmed by her jewelry: both the pearl bracelet and finger ring appeared in Titian’s original work. The seductive goddess is wrapped in luxurious fabrics as her son, the boyish god Cupid, holds a mirror up to her gaze, in a scene executed with beauty and subtlety.
Another painting, Venus, Cupid, Bacchus, and Ceres (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kassel) was finished in 1613. The allegorical theme shows the nude figures—an indication of their divinity—calmly enjoying the good life of love (Venus and Cupid), food (Ceres, goddess of agriculture), and wine (Bacchus, god of wine); here the goddess of love wears a pearl teardrop earring and a jeweled armband.
In the acclaimed Venus in Front of a Mirror (Princely Collections of Liechtenstein), completed about 1616, Rubens portrays the voluptuous figure of Venus with her back to the viewer. Her abundant blond hair flows across her shoulders as Cupid again holds a mirror before her, this time turned in a direction that allows Venus, through the reflection in the glass, to gaze at the viewer. In this painting Rubens plays with the theme of seeing and being seen, establishing a connection between the subject and the viewer while revealing her coquetry.
In the painting, Venus’s nudity is again enhanced by a jeweled armband and a pair of pearl teardrop earrings; one of the earrings is white, and the other—reflected in the mirror—appears black. These are available from The Met Store as popular reproduction earrings.
In Venus and Adonis in The Met collection (below), Rubens has drawn his subject from the Metamorphoses of Ovid (completed 8 A.D.). Venus, assisted by Cupid, vainly tries to restrain her mortal lover Adonis from setting off for the hunt, fearing that he may be killed.
Painted in the last decade of his life, it displays the rich color, superb technical ability, and vitality of Rubens’s best work. Here the sensuous nude goddess is adorned only with a pearl teardrop earring and two small, diaphanous cloths.
Happy birthday, Peter Paul Rubens!