One of the most recognizable artists in the history of Western art, Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) produced portraits, altarpieces, mythological scenes, and other masterpieces for patrons throughout Europe. With commissions from royal palaces in Paris, London, and Rome; a workshop in his native Antwerp filled with apprentices learning at his side; and with his masterfully executed drawings widely circulated through engravings, Rubens was an artist of truly international scope. The Baroque master’s powerful compositions, range of subject matter, and extraordinary facility with paint influenced artists from Velazquez to Fragonard, from Delacroix to Manet, even Picasso.
Born in Antwerp, Rubens received a humanist education before pursuing art. A visit to Rome turned into an eight-year sojourn, as the young artist studied the works of Renaissance masters such as Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, as well as more recent innovations by Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and Annibale Carracci.
Ever the enthusiastic pupil, Rubens carefully studied and sketched anatomy, learning from the Renaissance masters’ depictions of the human form. The sheets from his early stay in Rome reveal his exceptional skills as a draftsman—and preview the rigor he would apply to the accurate depiction of dramatically posed figures in his later monumental paintings.
While the variety of Rubens’s output is as varied as that of any artist, his name has become associated with the depiction of the sensual pleasures of the female form. A magnificent Venus in the Princely Collections of Liechtenstein demonstrates why. Naked but for a bracelet on her upper arm, Venus looks both caught in a fleeting moment and yet posed as if to be admired. As viewers meet the goddess’s gaze in a mirror held by her son Cupid, her pearl earring catching the light just so, the scene suggests a meditation on the nature of beauty—and the even the art of painting—itself.
A later painting in The Met collection depicts a more dramatic episode from the life of Venus, as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Succumbing to the effects of one of Cupid’s arrows, Venus becomes smitten with the young hunter Adonis. Immune to her charms, the youth rebuffs the lovestruck goddess—a remarkable feat of indifference, to judge from Rubens’s stunning depiction of her flesh—as Cupid tries his best to make him stay put. Adonis’s hunting hounds eye the trio impatiently, presumably eager to chase the wild boar that will eventually gore the callous youth to death.
Rubens enjoyed a career of unparalleled output and prestige, earning a fortune as a painter to the most elite clients in Europe. Open to the public today, his Italianate estate in Antwerp bespeaks his taste, erudition, and wealth—suggested by a late self-portrait, where he is seen with his second wife, Helena Fourment. Some 40 years his junior, she radiates youthful beauty; as he turns his gaze to her, resplendent in a doublet, purple mantle, and formal sword strap, he finds much to admire—both in his partner and almost certainly in the accomplishments of his full life and career.
Likewise, we can’t stop admiring the legacy of one of Europe’s most remarkable artists.