Rubens, Peter Paul

, an illustrious artist, was of a distinguished family at Antwerp, where some say he was born in 1577; but according to others he was barn at Cologne, to which place his father had retired for security, to avoid the calamities of civil war. On his return to Antwerp, our artist was educated with the greatest care, and as he had shown some turn for design, was placed for instruction under Tobias Verhaecht, a landscape painter of some note, but soon exchanged this master in order to study historical painting under Adam Van Oort. But as the surly temper of this artist was incompatible with the more amiable disposition of Rubens, he soon left him also, and attached himself to Otho Venius, whom he found a man of learning, candour, and congeniality of taste; and although he rose infinitely above this preceptor, he ever preserved the highest esteem for him. From Venius, Rubens probably acquired his taste for allegory, one of his least merits, it is true, but one to which he was indebted for a considerable share of popularity, in an age when allegory was in fashion.

After continuing about four years with Venius, the latter, who admired his progress, candidly told him that he could no farther advance it, and that he must visit Italy. This was Rubens’s secret wish, but the means by which he accomplished it have been variously represented. Sandrart, who was intimately acquainted with him, and accompanied him when he travelled through Holland, tells us that the archduke Albert, governor of the Netherlands, conceived so high an opinion of Rubens, from the accounts he had received of his superior talents, that he engaged him in his service, employed him to paint several fine designs for his own palace, and recommended him in the most honourable manner to the duke of Mantua, in whose court he might have access constantly to an admirable collection of paintings and antique statues, and have an opportunity of | improving himself by studying as well as copying the former, and designing after the latter. On his arrival at Mantua he was received with a degree of distinction worthy of his merit; and while he continued there, he added considerably to his knowledge, though he attached himself in a more particular manner to the style of colouring peculiar to the Venetian school. From Mantua he visited Rome, Venice, and other cities of Italy, and studied the works of the greatest painters, from the time of Raphael to his own, and accomplished himself in colouring, by the accurate observations he made on the style of Titian and Paolo Veronese. It has been objected, however, that he neglected to refine his taste as much as he ought by the antique, though most of the memorable artists in painting had sublimed their own ideas of grace, expression, elegant simplicity, beautiful proportion, and nature, principally by their making those antiques their perpetual studies and models.

On his return to Mantua, he painted three magnificent pictures for the church of the Jesuits, which, in point of execution and freedom of force in effect, rank nearly among his best productions. His patron, wishing to have copies of some of the most celebrated pictures at Rome, sent Rubens thither for that purpose, which while he performed with great skill, he employed no less diligence in studying the originals. In 1605, he was honoured with one of those mixed commissions, of statesman and artist, with which he was frequently entrusted, and which place the various powers of Rubens in a very singular light. This was no less than an embassy from Mantua to the court of Spain. Carrying with him some magnificent presents for the duke of Lerma, the favourite minister of Philip III. he painted at the same time the picture of this monarch, and received from him such flattering marks of distinction, as probably facilitated the political purpose of his errand. Soon after his return to Mantua, he again visited Rome, and there and at Genoa painted some pictures for the churches, which greatly advanced his reputation. On the death of his mother, whom he appears to have deeply regretted, he formed the design of settling in Italy, bnt by the persuasion of the archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella, was induced to take up his residence at Antwerp. Here he married his first wife, Elizabeth Brants, and built | a magnificent house, which he enriched with the choicest specimens of the antique, and with valuable pictures.

His amazing success very naturally created enemies, and among others Abraham Janssens defied him to a trial of strength. Rubens answered, that he would contend with him when he had shewn himself to be a competitor worthy of him. Others more secretly endeavoured to injure him by attributing the best parts of his pictures to his pupils, and Schut and Rombouts abused him for lack of invention; this he answered by relieving their necessities and procuring them employment, while by engaging in those varieties of art, landscapes, lion and crocodile-hunting, and other miscellaneous subjects, he decidedly established his claim to the title of an universal painter, and covered his calumniators with shame and confusion. Amidst so much hostility, from the envy of contemporaries, one friendly offer must not be forgot. A visionary chemist, who had been labouring to produce the philosopher’s stone, offered our artist a share of the laboratory and its advantages. Rubens took him to his painting-room, and told him that twenty years before he had discovered the art of making gold by his palette and pencils.

In 1620 he received a commission from Mary de Medici, to adorn the gallery of the palace of the Luxembourg, for which he executed a vvellfknown series of paintings, exhibiting the principal events of the life of that princess. The whole were completed in three years, an astonishing instance both of art and labour. It was at this period he became known to the duke of Buckingham, who was then on a tour with prince Charles. He afterwards became the purchaser of Rubens’s rich museum of works of art, for which he is said to have given 10,000l. sterling.

On the return of Rubens to Antwerp, he was honoured with several conferences with the Infanta Isabella, and was by her dispatched on a political mission to the court of Madrid, where he arrived in 1628, and was most graciously received by Philip IV. He acquitted himself in his novel cap K-ity to the satisfaction of that monarch, and his minister, the duke de Olivares, by both of whom he was highly esteemed; and while his talents as a diplomatist met with the success they merited, those of the painter were not neglected.

The duke de Olivares had just completed the foundation | t?f a convent of Carmelites, at the small town of Loeches, near Madrid, and the king, as a mark of his favour to the minister, commissioned liubens to paint four pictures for their church, which he executed in his grandest style, and the richest glow of his colouring. He also painted eight grand pictures for the great saloon of the palace at Madrid, which are regarded among the most brilliant of his productions. Their subjects were, the Rape of the Sabines the battle between the Romans and Sabines the Bath of Diana; Perseus and Andromeda; the Rape of Helen the Judgment of Paris; Juno, Minerva, and Venus; and the Triumph of Bacchus. He also painted a large portrait of the king on horseback, with other figures; and a picture of the martyrdom of the apostle St. Andrew, which was in the church dedicated to that saint. For these extraordinary productions he was richly rewarded* received the honour of knighthood, and was presented with the golden, key as gentleman of the chamber to the king. In 1629 he returned to Flanders, and thus, in the short space of little more than nine months, he designed and executed so extensive a series of pictures; a labour which, to any other artist not possessed of his extraordinary powers, must have required the exertion of many years. When he had rendered the account of his mission to the Infanta, she dispatched him to England, to sound the disposition of the government on the subject of a peace. There for a time he concealed the powers granted to him to negociate upon the subject, which he afterwards produced with success. In the mean time, as Lord Orford observes, neither Charles I. nor Rubens overlooked in the ambassador the talents of the painter. The king engaged him to paint the ceiling of the Banquetting-house, the design the apotheosis of king James I. The original sketch for the middle compartment was long preserved at Houghton. Rubens received 3000l. for this work. During his residence here he painted for the king the St. George, four feet high and seven feet wide. His majesty was represented in the Saint, the queen in Cleodelinde: each figure one foot and a half high: at a distance a view of Richmond and the Thames. In England are still several capital works of Rubens, at Blenheim, Wilton, Easton, &c. He was knighted during his residence here, which Lord Orford supposes did not exceed a year. The French, in their late barbarous irruptions into the Netherlands, robbed Flanders of fifty -two of | Rubens’s best pictures, which however have probably since found their way to their former destination.

Rubens continued to enjoy his well-earned fame and honours, with uninterrupted success, till he arrived at his fifty-eighth year, when he was attacked with strong fits of gout, which debilitated his frame, and unfitted him for great exertions: he abandoned, therefore, all larger works, and confined himself to easel painting. Yet he continued to exercise his art until 1640, when he died at the age of sixty-three. He was buried, with extraordinary pomp, in the church of St. James at Antwerp, under the altar of his private chapel, which he had previously decorated with a very fine picture. A monument was erected to him by his wife and children, with an epitaph in Latin, eulogizing his talents and virtues, and displaying their success.

He left a son Albert Rubens, who was born at Antwerp in 1614, and succeeded his father in his post as secretary to the council, devoting his leisure to literary pursuits. He died in 1657, leaving behind him many works, as monuments of his great learning and sound judgment, of which the following may be mentioned. “Regum et Imperatorum Romanorum Numismata,” which is a commentary on the medals of the duke of Arscbot: “De Re Vestiaria Veterum:” “Dissertatio de Gemma Tiberiana et Augustea de Urbibus Neocoris de natali Die Caesaris Augusti,” which were published by Graevius in the “Thesaurus Antiq. Roman.

Lord Orford has observed that “one cannot write the life of Rubens, without transcribing twenty authors;” and certainly twice twenty critics may be quoted who have dilated on his merits as an artist, with more or less discrimination. In concluding his article, however, we shall confine ourselves to the opinion of sir Joshua Reynolds, from its acknowledged superiority.

The elevated situation,” says our great artist, " or> which Rubens stands in the esteem of the world, is alone a sufficient reason for some examination of his pretensions. His tame is extended over a great part of the Continent, without a rival; and it may be justly said, that he has enriched his country, not in a figurative sense only, by the great examples of art which he left, but by what some would think a more solid advantage, the wealth arising from the concourse of strangers whom his works continually invite to Antwerp, which would otherwise have little to reward | the visit of a connoisseur. To the city of Dueseldorp he has been an equal benefactor. The gallery of that city is considered as containing one of the greatest collections of pictures in the world; but if the works of Rubens were taken from it, I will venture to assert, that this great repository would be reduced to at least half its value. To extend his glory still farther, he gives to Paris one of its most striking features, the Luxembourg gallery; and if to these we add the many towns, churches, and private cabinets, where a single picture of Rubens confers eminence, we cannot hesitate to place him in the first rank of illustrious painters.

"Though I still entertain the same general opinion both in regard to his excellencies and his defects, yet having now seen his greatest compositions, where he has more means of displaying those parts of his art in which he particularly excelled, my estimation of his genius is of course raised. It is only in large compositions that his powers seem to have room to expand themselves. They really increase in proportion to the size of the canvas on which they are to be displayed. His superiority is not seen in easel pictures, nor even in detached parts of his greater works; which are seldom eminently beautiful. It does not lie in an attitude, or in any peculiar expression, but in the general effect, in the genius which pervades and illuminates the whole.

"I remember to have observed in a picture of Diatreci, which I saw in a private cabinet at Brussels, the contrary effect. In that performance there appeared to be a total absence of this pervading genius; though every individual figure was correctly drawn, and to the action of each as careful an attention was paid, as if it were a set academy figure. Here seemed to be nothing left to chance; all the nymphs (the subject was the Bath of Diana) were what the ladies call in attitudes; yet, without being able to censure it for incorrectness, or any other defect, I thought it one of the coldest and most insipid pictures I ever beheld.

"The works of Rubens have that peculiar property always attendant on genius, to attract attention, and enforce admiration, in spite of all their faults. It is owing to this fascinating power that the performances of those painters with which he is surrounded, though they have, perhaps, fewer defects, yet appear spiritless, tame, and insipid; such as the altar-pieces of Crayer, Schutz, Segers, | Heysens, Tysens, Van Bulen, and the rest. They are done by men whose hands, and indeed all their faculties, appear to have been cramped and confined; and it is evident that every thing they did was the effect of great labour and pains. The productions of Rubens, on the contrary, seem to flow with a freedom and prodigality, as if they cost him nothing; and to the general animation of the composition, there is always a correspondent spirit in the execution of the work. The striking brilliancy of his colours, and their lively opposition to each other, the flowing liberty and freedom of his outline, the animated pencil with which every object is touched, all contribute to awaken and keep alive the attention of the spectator; awaken in him, in some measure, correspondent sensations, and make him feel a degree of that enthusiasm with which the painter was carried away. To this we add the complete uniformity in all the parts of the work, so that the whole seems to be conducted, and grow out of one mind; every thing is of a piece, and fits its place. Even his taste of drawing and of form appears to correspond better with his colouring and composition, than if he had adopted any other manner, though that manner, simply considered, might be better; it is here as in personal attractions: there is frequently found a certain agreement and correspondence in the whole together, which is often more captivating than mere regular beauty.

*’ Rubens appears to have had that confidence in himself, which it is necessary for every artist to assume, when he has finished his studies, and may venture, in some measure, to throw aside the fetters of authority; to consider the rules as subject to his controul, and not himself subject to the rules; to risk and to dare extraordinary attempts without a guide, abandoning himself to his own sensations, and depending upon them. To this confidence must be imputed that originality of manner by which he may be truly said to have extended the limits of the art. After Rubens had made up his manner, he never looked out of himself for assistance: there is consequently very little in his works, that appears to be taken from other masters. If he has borrowed any thing, he has had the address to change and adapt it so well to the rest of his work, that the theft is not discoverable.

"Besides the excellency of Rubens in these general powers, he possessed the true art of imitating. He saw the | objects of nature with a painter’s eye; he saw at once the predominant feature by which every object is known and Distinguished; and as soon as seen, it was executed with a facility that is astonishing: and let me add, this facility is to a painter, when he closely examines a picture, a source of great pleasure. How far this excellence may be perceived or felt by those who are not painters, I know not to themcertainly it is not enough that objects be truly representedtliey must likewise be represented with grace which means here, that the work is done with facility, and without effort. Rubens was, perhaps, the greatest master in the mechanical part of the art, the best workman with his tools that ever exercised a pencil. This part of the art, though it does not hold a rank with the powers of invention, of giving character and expression, has yet in it what may be called genius. It is certainly something that cannot be taught by words, though it may be learned by a frequent examination of those pictures which possess this excellence. It is felt by very few painters; and it is as rare at this time among the living painters, as any of the higher excellencies of the art.

"This power, which Rubens possessed in the highest degree, enabled him to represent whatever he undertook better than any other painter. His animals, particularly lions and horses, are so admirable, that it may be said they were never properly represented but by him. His portraits rank with the best works of the painters who have made that branch of the art the sole business of their lives; and of those he has left a great variety of specimens. The same may be said of his landscapes; and though Claude Lorrain finished more minutely, as becomes a professor in any particular branch, yet there is such an airiness and facility in the landscapes of Rubens, that a painter would as soon wish to be the author of them, as those of Claude, or any other artist whatever.

"The pictures of Rubens have this effect upon the spectator, that he feels himself in no wise disposed to pick out and dwell on his defects. The criticisms which are made on bint are indeed often unreasonable. His style ought no more to be blamed for not having the sublimity of Michael Angelo, than Ovid should be censured because he is not like Virgil.

"However, it must be acknowledged, that he wanted many excellencies, which would have perfectly united with | his style. Among those we may reckon beauty in his fe-? male characters: sometimes, indeed, they make approaches to it; they are healthy and comely women, but seldom, if ever, possess any degree of elegance: the same may be said of his young men and children: his old men have that sort of dignity which a bushy beard will confer; but he never possessed a poetical conception of character. In his representations of the highest characters in the Christian or the fabulous world, instead of something above humanity, which might fill the idea which is conceived of such beings, the spectator finds little more than mere mortals, such as he meets with every day.

"The incorrectness of Rubens, in regard to his outline, oftener proceeds from haste and carelessness, than from inability: there are in his great works, to which he seems to have paid more particular attention, naked figures as eminent for their drawing as for their colouring. He appears to have entertained a great abhorrence of the meagre dry manner of his predecessors, the old German and Flemish painters; to avoid which, he kept his outline large and flowing: this, carried to an extreme, produced that heaviness which is so frequently found in his figures. Another defect of this great painter is, his inattention to the foldings of his drapery, especially that of his women: it is scarcely ever cast with any choice or skill.

Carlo Maratti and Rubens are, in this respect, in opposite extremes; one discovers too much art in the dispositions of drapery, and the other too little. Rubens’s drapery, besides, is not properly historical; the quality of the stuff of which it is composed, is too accurately distinguished resembling the manner of Paul Veronese. This drapery is less offensive in Rubens than it would be in many other painters, as it partly contributes to that richness which is the peculiar character of his style, which we do not pretend to set forth as of the most simple and sublime kind.

"The difference of the manner of Rubens from that of any other painter before him, is in nothing more distinguishable than in his colouring, which is totally different from that of Titian, Corregio, or any of the great colourists. The effect of his pictures may be not improperly compared to clusters of flowers; all his colours appear as clear and as beautiful: at the same time he has avoided that tawdry effect which one would expect such gay colours | to produce; in this respect resembling Barocci more than any other painter. What was said of an ancient painter may be applied to those two artists that their figures look as if they fed upon roses.

"It would be a curious and a profitable study for a painter, to examine the difference, and the cause of that difference of effect in the works of Corregio and Rubens, both excellent in different ways. The preference probably would be given according to the different habits of the connoisseur: those who had received their first impressions from the works of Rubens, would censure Corregio as heavy; and the admirers of Corregio would say Rubens wanted solidity of effect. There is lightness, airiness, and facility in Rubens, his advocates will urge, and comparatively a laborious heaviness in Corregio; whose admirers will complain of Rubens’s manner being careless and unfinished, whilst the works of Corregio are wrought to the highest degree of delicacy; and what may be advanced in favour of Corregio' s breadth of light, will, by his censurers, be called affected and pedantic. It must be observed, that we are speaking solely of the manner, the effect of the picture; and we may conclude, according to the custom in pastoral poetry, by bestowing on each of these illustrious painters a garland, without attributing superiority to either.

To conclude, I will venture to repeat in favour of Rubens, what I have before said in regard to the Dutch school that those who Qannot see the extraordinary merit of this great painter, either have a narrow conception of the variety of art, or are led away by the affectation of approving nothing but what comes from the Italian school.1


Pilkington. Argenville. Ikscamps. Sir J. Reynolds’s Works. —Rees’s Cyclopædia.