Peter Paul Rubens and his paintings
Few artists have left so deep an imprint on their times as Peter Paul Rubens, the painter whose sense of grandiosity and drama gave visual definition to Baroque power. Fusing the lessons of the Italian Renaissance and the artistic
traditions of his native Flanders, Rubens created a style that was entirely original and universally appealing, an international language that bespoke authority and cultivation. It was a heroic vision, one that allowed him to picture
the most powerful men and women of his day, and the institutions they controlled, not necessarily as they were, but as they wished to be seen. His unique ability and keen sense of entrepreneurship brought him a seemingly endless
stream of royal clients, but he was adored by the general public as well, especially for the moving evocations of devotion he created for their places of worship. No artist better managed the delicate task of translating the ethereal
passion and splendor of religious faith onto canvas. The reverence shown him by other artists was almost fanatic. A young Rembrandt, like many painters who followed in his wake, modeled himself
on Rubens - he even dressed in imitation of the great master from Antwerp.
The nearly universal esteem in which Rubens was held, com-bined with his access to the highest reaches of international power, provided the foundation for his conscription into diplomatic service. Painting gave Rubens the perfect cover for clandestine work; he could appear at any foreign court and always use his art to allay suspicion of ulterior motives. It's hard to imagine this happening in our own time; we don't expect artists to be spies or diplomats. Political figures dabbling in art is one thing - Churchill and Eisenhower were amateur painters, and Hitler a failed professional - but not the reverse. From the Romantic era, we have inherited a vision of the painter as an emotionally volatile, impecunious radical: a critic or enemy of the state, and not someone to be entrusted with its most delicate and urgent business.
What prompted Rubens's engagement in politics was the condition of his native Flanders, a land beset by sectarian violence and occupied by a negligent foreign empire, Spain, to which he owed allegiance. His beloved but decimated Antwerp, once a haven of international trade and culture, sat on the front lines of a war of independence waged against that Spanish empire by the nascent Dutch republic to the north. Rubens made it his personal mission to resolve that seemingly intractable conflict, known to history as the Eighty Years' War. It was a goal he pursued with the same energy that he brought to his art, and one for which he risked all that he had acquired - his career, his reputation, his life.
Sectarian conflict and political dogmatism still plague the community of nations, a reality that gives particular resonance to the story of a moderate and pragmatic man who spent so much of his life fighting entrenched forces in the halls of international power. For all its relevance, however, Rubens's diplomatic work and philosophy are for the most part unknown but to scholars, an unfortunate, though not surprising, circumstance. Contemporary audiences can hardly be expected to recall his political career when even his accomplishments as a painter remain largely unfamiliar. Among the great masters of art history, Rubens is something of a forgotten man, respected but misunderstood, hidden in plain sight. The reasons are many. There is no single painting that defines his career, no image so iconic as the Mona Lisa or the Demoiselles d'Avignon. He does not conform to our favored image of the artist as a tortured soul. The allegorical, mythological, and biblical figures that populate his canvases are alien to modern viewers, and those canvases can be so large and so complicated as to defy ready explanation. He has been tarred by the undistinguished politics of his clients. To many, he is simply the man who painted lascivious pictures of fat, naked women.
Our inability to fully grasp Rubens's achievement is at least in part a failure of narrative. His story and his paintings have been robbed of their urgency over the centuries following his death. What passed for common knowledge and experience in the seventeenth century can seem altogether foreign to a modern audience. It is the historian's challenge to bridge this divide, and the rewards are well worth the effort. Rubens was possessed of an alchemical gift, an ability to bring colorful, breathtaking life to inanimate matter, and he is responsible for some of our most arrestingly beautiful and emotionally stirring investigations of the human condition. The essential lessons of these works are as fresh now as they were four hundred years ago, and we can recapture them in all their complex grandeur if we give the Rubens story the careful and sustained attention it so richly deserves.