Rubens was born in Antwerp, when it was under the Spanish Inquisition to root out Protestants. The family fled to Protestant Germany, where Rubens grew up in Koln. His father died when he was ten years old, his mother returned to Antwerp and the Catholic Church. Rubens was engaged as a page to a Countess: he learned courtly manners which would be extremely useful in his life. Artistically talented, he was apprenticed in the Antwerp painter’s guild of St. Luke.
Rubens proved to be an exceptional artist, was highly appreciated by the Catholic Church, kings, and nobles in Belgium, Italy, and Spain. He was well received where ever he traveled, and his work was constantly in demand. He maintained a large teaching studio, and many of his students, including Anthony Van Dyke, became extremely successful. With his great popularity and growing wealth, he was able to purchase and maintain a fine house, marry the woman he loved, and raise several children. His personality and conversation were also much sought after, and when he traveled to foreign courts to complete commissions, he was often there on a diplomatic mission as well.
His artistic style helped to initiate the Baroque. His competence with an exceedingly wide range of subject matter from religion to mythology and portraiture was unique. One particular subject matter which he reintroduced was wild animal paintings. In Europe at this time, commoners hunted animals such as deer, rabbits, and birds for food. Paintings depicting kings and nobles in hunting clothes were popular, but their hunts were for pleasure and trophies. The larger world of Africa and the East was opening up; and with new colonies and an increase in trade, brought knowledge of a variety of strange and exotic animals. Collecting these animals was the province of the very wealthy. The Archduke of Brussels had several lions, tigers and others in his collection. Rubens visited these animals frequently.
“Daniel in the Lions Den” (1614-16) (88’’x130’’) (National Gallery of Art) was commissioned by Sir Dudley Carleton, the English Ambassador to The Hague in Belgium. The painting was such a success that Carleton commissioned several other works from Rubens, and eventually became a dealer for his art. Carleton was also a good friend to the famous Duke of Buckingham, referenced by Dumas in his novel The Three Musketeers. In exchange for the painting, Rubens acquired over one hundred pieces of classical sculpture from Carleton’s collection and amount of money. Rubens was a great collector.
The story of Daniel (Daniel, 6: 1-28) depicts the Jewish prophet’s punishment for not worshiping the gods of Persia. Daniel is imprisoned in the lions den for a night, with the expectation that he would be dead by morning. We see the various bones of other inhabitants of the den. The lions are spectacular, and it is easy to see why this painting had such an impact on viewers. The lions were modeled on a species known in North Africa and Morocco as Barbary Lions, which served as models for lions in art from Ancient Egypt to the Nineteenth Century, and now almost extinct. Rubens saw them in the Spanish governor’s menagerie in Brussels. Some are sleeping and some resting, but two are snarling. The viewer can admire the brilliant painting of the smallest details.
Daniel is depicted in prayer to God to protect him. In the Baroque manner, the viewer is placed in the heart in heart of the action and as a result of the size of the painting the viewer is close in size to Daniel and the lions. The Seventeenth Century Baroque style of painting does not present the meditative and quiet scene of the Renaissance style of the Fifteenth Century. In the intervening Sixteenth Century the Protestant Reformation put the Catholic Church on the defensive. To counteract the Protestant movement, the Catholic Baroque, style, largely initiated by Rubens, generated all the emotional techniques available to artists. Rather than a clear blue sky and sunlight, Rubens and others created dark and brooding skies, or when inside, the dramatic change from the light pouring down on Daniel, to the extreme darkness of the den. Another typical Baroque touch is the bright red cloak laid under Daniel. Darkness creates mystery and the unknown, and the color red, the color of blood and fire, creates emotion. This painting, on display at the National Gallery, in Washington, DC, is not to be missed.
“Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt” (1615-16) (98’’ x 126’’) was commissioned by Maximilian, Duke of Bavaria for his summer residence. Rubens probably went to Rome to see the dead hippo preserved in brine for his model. With the Nile River and reeds and palm trees as background, three Arab riders on astride powerful Arabian horses spear the hippo. They are assisted by two servants, one fallen and possibly dead, and the other attacking the charging hippo with a knife. In the middle of this melee is the crocodile, mouth open with razor sharp teeth, nears the fallen servant. Two loyal hunting dogs assist in the fight. A white dog surges in from the left to attack the hippo, while a black dogs grabs and bites the crocodile’s tail. The viewer is at the center of the hunt and the hunt which is moving forward in the composition as it explodes across the front of the canvas.
The composition is dynamic. Every outline is curved, and diagonals energize each form. The hippo is at the center of the canvas at the high point of the triangular composition formed by the dog and man with the knife on the left and the injured man and the crocodile’s tale on the right. Above this center grouping are the riders on horse back forming a semicircle that behind the aforementioned triangle. Everything moves from the flying fabric, horse’s manes, rearing legs of horses, blowing reeds, and dark clouds moving across the blue sky. Rubens’s use of color draws the viewer across the canvas; he uses white, red, and a variety of yellows to highlight the movement of the figures. The more subtle use of green and blue, black and brown, move from left to right and back to front. Rubens is a master of composition. Nothing is static.
“Lion Hunt” (1617) (148.2’’x 98’’) is another hunt painting commissioned by Maximilian of Bavaria. Rubens comments, “I have almost finished a large picture, entirely by my hand, and in my opinion one of my best, representing a Lion Hunt, with the figures life-sized.” The hunts Rubens painted were influenced in part by tales told by noble men who had witnessed or participated in such hunts. The male hunt participants are generally exotic types, Arab and African, and their servants. Rubens’s “Lion and Wolf Hunt” (1617-18) was purchased by King Charles I of England. Beyond hunts with exotic animals, Rubens painted scenes with local animals such as “The Wild Boar Hunt” (1618-20) and scenes from mythology such as “The Hunt of Meleager and Atalanta” (1616-20), also know as “The Caledonian Boar Hunt,” and scenes of the goddess Diana and her nymphs hunting deer.
Rubens’s numerous Old Testament, New Testament, mythologies, and portraits hang in almost every museum, large or small, across the world. He had a large and talented number of apprentices who worked with him on many of his paintings. Never-the-less, he designed, oversaw, corrected, and painted the crucial parts of all of the work.
With his beloved first wife, Isabella Brandt, he had three children. He was grief stricken at her death. A loving family man, witnessed by the numerous tender drawings and paintings of his family, he found love again with Helen Fourment who bore him a daughter several months after his death. Rubens was unique among artists. Not only was he an extremely popular and wealthy painter he enjoyed two successful and happy marriages. It has been said of Rubens that he was definitely the right man for the right time.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.