National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640)

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The most sought-after painter in northern Europe during the seventeenth century, Peter Paul Rubens, was also a diplomat, linguist, and scholar. His dynamic, emotional style with its rich texture, vivid color, and lively movement has influenced Western art to the present day.

Born the son of a lawyer and educated at a Jesuit school in Antwerp, Flanders, Rubens learned classical and modern languages. He spent the years 1600 to 1608 studying and working in Italy. Returning to Antwerp, he continued to travel as both courtier and painter. His repeated visits to Madrid, Paris, and London allowed him to negotiate treaties while accepting royal commissions for art.

One of Rubens' major innovations in procedure, which many later artists have followed, was his use of small oil studies as compositional sketches for his large pictures and tapestry designs. Rather than merely drawing, Rubens painted his modelli, or models, thereby establishing the color and lighting schemes and the distributions of shapes simultaneously.

Rubens and the Baroque Style

The dramatic artistic style of the seventeenth century is now called "baroque," a term apparently derived at a later time from ornate jewelry set with irregular pearls. At its most exuberant, the baroque involves restless motion, startling color contrasts, and vivid clashes of light and shadow. Baroque art often appeals directly to the emotions, exemplified by three of the life-size beasts in Rubens' Daniel in the Lions' Den that stare hungrily at the viewer.

Rubens managed a very large studio in Antwerp, training many apprentices and employing independent colleagues to help execute specific projects. Among his mature collaborators whose baroque works are on view in the National Gallery of Art are Anthony van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens, Jan Brueghel, and Frans Snyders.

Rubens' style tremendously influenced baroque painters throughout Europe, even those such as the German-born Johann Liss who had no documented contact with the master. Liss' The Satyr and the Peasant, for instance, is Rubensian in its lively gestures and telling expressions. Painted during the 1620s in Italy, it illustrates a tale from Aesop's Fables in which an immortal satyr helped a peasant find his way through a winter storm. The goat-legged creature was astonished when the man put his chilled hands to his mouth to warm them. In thanks for the satyr's guidance, the peasant invited him home to eat. The satyr was further perplexed when the man blew on his spoon to cool the hot soup. The satyr jumped up in disgust at human hypocrisy, proclaiming, "I will have nothing to do with someone who blows hot and cold with the same breath!"

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