Editor’s note: Obelisk sometimes gravitates to artists whose lives were violent, dramatic, even tragic. They make good stories. But every now and then someone like Rubens comes along and does everything right. His talent was extraordinary, and his life was awesome. All we can do is just stand back and slow clap.
Peter Paul Rubens would have been perfectly at home in the contemporary world of entrepreneurship. In the 17th century, a painter of Rubens status didn’t work alone, but managed a studio — producing a massive quantity of artworks for wealthy patrons. Talent had to be balanced by business savvy and a keen eye for popular taste. Rubens didn’t just paint, he knew how to sell painting.
As young man, Rubens first trained as an artist in Siegen, Germany, then traveled to Rome to study the masters of Italian painting. Rome was Rubens’s boot camp. He spent 8 years copying the seminal works of the Renaissance, honing his already considerable skills.
Rubens moved to Antwerp in 1608, to visit his Mother on her deathbed. She died before he arrived, but Rubens stayed and put down roots. Within a year he would be made a court painter for the Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella. At 33, Rubens was a model entrepreneur. He married, and purchased a home in a wealthy, fashionable part of Antwerp. He expanded his studio to include many assistants and to support the production at scale of enormous altarpieces. He woke at 4am to work twelve solid hours before going riding to stay fit. He the eminent professional — famously composed in his business dealings, and it also never hurts to be tall dark and handsome.
As his renown increased, so did his production. In a catalog of his works by Michael Jaffe, 1,403 artworks are attributed to Peter Paul Rubens — not including the numerous copies produced by his workshop. Ruben’s skillfully played to the tastes of the day — hitting all the favorite topics: mythological scenes, landscapes, religious work, and so many full-figured women that the term Rubenesque was coined to describe them. Ruben even pioneered new genres with his series of ‘hunts’ — massive paintings of royals combating exotics beasts, all at an enormous physical scale designed to only fit within the largest and grandest of palaces.
Rubens commissions soon extended beyond the Netherlands. In 1622 he was commissioned by Maria de Medici, where he was quickly forced to hone a new skill set — the political maneuver. Cardinal Richelieu hated him, Maria was unpredictable and the project eventually fell apart, leaving many works uncompleted. But Rubens brought home a session — painting is powerful.
After the death of his first wife in 1625 Rubens traveled again, this time wielding his skill in painting as a diplomatic tool. He traveled to England to work for King Charles I. In both France and England, Rubens would arrive as a painter and leave as a confidant of the powerful and dangerous. In his travels he was able to negotiate allegiances for Isabella Clara Eugenia, now the governor of the Spanish Netherlands after the death of her husband Albert. In exchange, Isabella bestowed knighthood on her loyal painter, and Rubens became Sir Peter Paul Rubens.
In 1630, Rubens decided to slow it down. He was 53 years old, healthy, rich, and single. He moved to his country house, the Chateau de Steen, and married a beautiful young woman. His new wife was Hélène Fourment, the 16 year old niece of first wife —and with this marriage he changed his focus from man of business to man of pleasure. While he still painted, Rubens avoided commissions, painting landscapes or portraits of young Hélène.
In retirement, Rubens saw his legacy expand. Already many of his protégés were running successful studios of their own. Cornelis de Vos continued Rubens’s portrait work in Antwerp, and Anthony van Dyck took his training from Rubens all the way to England where he became a leading court painter. Ruben’s had five children with his wife, and died happy at age 62.
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Reed Enger, "Peter Paul Rubens, Great painter, perfect entrepreneur," in Obelisk Art History, Published February 19, 2016; last modified May 08, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/peter-paul-rubens/.