Artists, historically, were viewed as craftsmen, who were given their talents by God to bring beauty and light into the world, to raise man up to God, by the medium of art. It is in the Netherlands that oil painting first became the supreme art by the genius of Jan van Eyck. It is in the Netherlands that an artist obtained nobility, fame, and wealth by respectability virtue and above all his devotion to the Catholic faith. That artist was Peter Paul Rubens.Share
There are a number of good works about Rubens’ art, and no biography can do without talking about it. However, Master of Shadows, by Mark Lamster, is about another, less known side of Rubens, not as painter, but as a diplomat and spy. He couldn’t have been born at a better time for it either. Spain and the nascent Dutch Republic were at war, and Spain, the greatest empire in the world, was on the losing side it seemed. The real losers were the inhabitants of the Spanish Netherlands (modern day Belgium) who were ruled by a foreign power that did not understand them, prevented from making peace with their Protestant neighbors, and their greatest city, Antwerp, turned into a ghost town on account of the Dutch blockade of the Schlect, the main river leading to it from the English channel. It was his native Flanders that Rubens loved, and he would devote his life to bringing it, and the rest of Europe, peace.
What is fascinating about this biography, is that we find Rubens continually involved with the great men of his time. Not just the Duke’s of Mantua, his first big patron, but the Spanish regents of the Netherlands, the Empress Maria and the Count of Lerma Philip IV’s chief counselor, Philip IV himself, the scheming Count Olivarez, the kind and upright general Spignola, and conversely, Marie de Medici, Charles I of England, and many other contemporary artists and poets. He clashed swords, diplomatically speaking, with Cardinal Richelieu and won, he was knighted by Philip IV of Spain and also by Charles I of England. His correspondence was enormous, and his art production in the thousands of works, and even more copies of other great masters. What I have always particularly admired in Rubens, is his staunch Catholicism, married to his love of the pagan classics.
Like Raphael or Michaelangelo in the 16th century, for Rubens, classical and mythological themes were often used as an expression of Christian virtue, and they saw no particular contradiction in it. This was of course, the luxury of a christian age that had survived and long since vanquished the old paganism. Nevertheless, that pagan inheritance is the key to understanding most of Rubens’ art, as well as his life. (Read more.)