Peter Paul Rubens is widely known as a successful artist, but he was also an esteemed diplomat, polyglot and art collector. His brilliant spirit lives on in the city of Antwerp today, not just in its baroque paintings and architecture, but also as an inspiration for contemporary artists. In 2018, the city of Antwerp will celebrate its baroque cultural heritage and the Baroque lifestyle that is undeniably part of the city’s DNA.
A stellar talent
Rubens was born in 1577 in Siegen (in present-day Germany), but soon moved to Antwerp with his mother after his father died when he was young. It was there that he learnt to paint, taking instruction from artists such as Tobias Verhaecht, Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen.
In 1600, he travelled to Rome and Venice in Italy, and then later to Spain. It was clear even then that he was no ordinary talent as he soon began to receive Royal commissions from both courts.
Rubens house and work studios
In 1608, he returned to Antwerp as the official court painter to the Low Countries, a title bestowed on him by Archduke Albert of Austria and Isabella of Spain. It was at this time that he bought a house and land on Wapper Square - right in the centre of today’s Antwerp – and set about redesigning it completely.
Inspired by the architecture of Roman Antiquity and the Renaissance, Rubens drew up the plans for the renovation himself, and turned an ordinary Flemish house into a ‘palazzo’. He extended the home considerably adding a studio, a garden pavilion and a domed sculpture museum. There was also a magnificent portico offering a beautiful view of the courtyard garden and the garden pavilion. The result was magnificent. From then on, his studio would become a hive of activity with many employees and students, some of who went to be famous in their own right, like Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens. The studio produced hundreds of creations and paintings, many specifically to order.
A diplomatic career
A favourite of Archduchess Isabella, Rubens became increasingly involved in diplomatic missions on
her behalf. It was he who finally brokered a peace deal between Spain and England, a move that would eventually lead to a cessation of hostilities between the Spanish and the Dutch, close allies of the English.
Rubens was a highly esteemed court guest all over Europe with many contemporaries considering him as skilled a diplomat as he was a painter. He was by then almost universally revered as an artist without rival.
During his travels he secured many high-profile assignments, including commissions such as the creation of 24 paintings celebrating the life of Maria de Medici for the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris.
A Baroque legend
In 1630, Rubens returned to Flanders for good and bought Elewijt Castle outside Brussels. There he painted
his largest commission to date, namely 112 works to decorate the Royal Hunting Lodge in Madrid, the Torre de la Parada. These were finally finished in 1638 only and were duly dispatched to Spain.
Rubens’ health was beginning to deteriorate, and he died in 1640 aged 62, at his home on Antwerp’s Wapper Square.
Antwerp is the only city in the world to be so permeated in every respect by Peter Paul Rubens and his baroque legacy. “Antwerp Baroque 2018. Rubens inspires” is an opportunity to experience Rubens and baroque in many intense and unique ways.