Nobody has ever painted skin the way 17th-century Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens did, so that you can see the blood coursing beneath it; or used colour — particularly rich, glowing red velvets and silks — in the same dramatic, voluptuous way. He was the most versatile, brilliant and prolific artist and the Damien Hirst of his day.
Rubens delighted, innovated and shocked, using a studio of talented painters including Anthony van Dyck to help produce work that was sent across Europe, including to England. He painted the glorious ceilings for the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Done in his Antwerp studio in 1634-5 on vast canvases, they were rolled and shipped to London to be fitted.
Rubens's Antwerp was a bustling port with a magnificent harbour, beautiful, gabled guild buildings in Market Square, and the soaring Cathedral of our Lady with its 400ft tower, for which Rubens would paint famous altarpieces. All these are still there — but in other respects, Antwerp was very different from today's easy-going city. Throughout the artist's long life from 1577 to 1640, religious wars flared up.
His father, Jan, a Calvinist, had fled Flanders for Germany before Rubens was born to avoid persecution, and Rubens only went back when he was 10, to what was then the intensely Catholic Spanish Netherlands. He went to a Catholic school, before being apprenticed to learn his trade, becoming a master himself in 1598, aged 21.
From 1600 he travelled widely in Italy and Spain, returning in 1608. His talent had been noted and he was made court painter in 1609 — the year he married 18-yearold Isabella Brant, who lived round the corner. The couple bought a twostorey brick house, which Rubens proceeded to redesign and rebuild.
The grandeur of the house and gardens that Rubens created was meant to mirror his success and importance, and the house has been restored based on late 18th-century floorplans, along with two small 17th-century engravings.
Rubens designed it in the style of an Italianate Renaissance palazzo. As well as court painter he was a successful international diplomat. His clients were nobles and monarchs, and the house had to reflect that. He added a gabled top storey and a huge studio that was separated from the main house, with tall doors to get paintings through. In this workshop, artists including Van Dyck toiled at scores of paintings that Rubens sketched, and to which he then probably added finishing touches.
The house's imposing street front of brick dressed with stone, with leaded, shuttered windows, is fine enough, but it is the back that astonishes. Here, he made a courtyard and separated it from the stylised Baroque garden by a bold, arched stone screen inspired by Michelangelo, with Mercury, god of painters, on top holding a palette and brush. Inside, the house was equally imposing, from its black-and-white marble hall floors to quarry tile floors laid out in red and black patterns elsewhere.
The exposed timbers of the ceilings combined with embossed leather wall coverings and profusely carved dark furniture, all lit by the gleam of fire and candelabra, to make a rich background to Rubens's large collection of paintings and books. The artist also designed a circular marble sculpture gallery for his collected sculptures and busts. The carved, curtained beds the Rubenses slept in look short to our eyes because it was conventional to sleep propped up, to aid digestion.
Rubens painted Isabella into much of his work, as well as doing portraits of her. She died of the plague in 1626, leaving three children. That same year he painted her movingly as Mary Magdalene in his massive work, The Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
A RUBENESQUE MUSE
In 1630 at 53, Rubens married again, to Hélène Fourment, just 16, to whom he was related by marriage. Considered the most beautiful woman in Flanders, she was the daughter of a tapestry dealer, for whom her husband created some designs. The couple lived in Rubens's house and had five children, and in the decade before his death, Hélène inspired many voluptuous female figures that now epitomise the term Rubenesque.
Rubens and his Legacy runs from January 24 to April 10 at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly W1. More information at royalacademy.org.uk.
For details of Rubens's house, visit www.rubenshuis.be.