Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was one of the greatest masters of the 17th century and a man of great integrity, probity, and discretion. The growth of his international artistic reputation was paralleled by his increased involvement in European politics. During the 1620s, Rubens was entrusted with delicate diplomatic missions at the behest of the Archduchess Isabella, the regent who governed the Spanish Netherlands for the King of Spain, Philip IV, which could be accomplished under the cover of his activities as an artist.
Rubens's most important diplomatic venture occurred in 1627, in the middle of the Thirty Years' War, when he traveled to Spain in an effort to bring about a peaceful resolution to the ongoing hostilities that had seriously affected the Netherlands. He was received by Philip IV, and then sent to London as an emissary of the king. In London, he stayed for several months with his friend Balthasar Gerbier and his family in their living quarters along the Thames. Rubens may have conceived of the portrait of Gerbier's wife Deborah Kip, the daughter of a well-to-do member of London's Dutch community, as a potential gift in gratitude for the couple's hospitality or as a souvenir for himself.
Deborah Kip and four of her children are shown on a terrace elaborately appointed with entwined caryatids that support a bower, a setting that points to the family's elevated status. Their prosperity is also evident in Deborah Kip's elegantly embroidered skirt and lustrous blouse and cap. Perched on her chair is a blue-gray parrot, a symbol of aristocratic wealth and an allusion in Christian art to the Virgin Mary, the perfect mother. As she holds the baby on her lap, son George holds back a curtain; Elizabeth, dressed entirely in black, is serene and composed; and Susan rests her arms on her mother's knee and returns our gaze. Despite the elegant setting and the bravura brushwork, Rubens controlled the composition so that the tender relationship between the mother and her children remains the focus.
Rubens initially painted the family group at the core of the composition on a vertical rectangular central piece of canvas, to which he—perhaps while still in England— added strips on all four sides in preparation for the almost square final composition. When Rubens returned to Antwerp in April 1630, he took the still-unfinished family portrait with him. The painting, which remained in his possession, was probably completed by Jacob Jordaens after Rubens's death in 1640. An expanded copy from the Rubens workshop, one that Balthasar Gerbier almost certainly commissioned for his personal collection, is in the Royal Collection, Windsor Castle.
Around 1600, the young Rubens, who had been trained in classical ideals and philosophy, had traveled from Antwerp to Italy to experience firsthand its artistic traditions. He sought to understand not only antiquity and the Renaissance, including the work of Raphael and Michelangelo, but also contemporary artists such as Caravaggio. The inspiration he gained from this multifaceted exposure profoundly affected his own style of painting and became the foundation for his future work. Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1609, at the time of the Twelve Years' Truce, and became court painter to the regents in the Southern Netherlands, Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella. It was a period of peace and prosperity, and Rubens, who was devoutly Catholic, received many commissions for religious works, including large altarpieces. He established a large workshop and developed close working relationships with other important masters, including Anthony van Dyck. When Rubens travelled to Spain in 1627, he saw many great paintings by Titian, the 16th century Venetian master. Titian's softly luminous paintings greatly influenced Rubens's late style, particularly portraits, such as this remarkable painting of Deborah Kip and her children.