The Paintings of Peter Paul Rubens, the Prolific 17th Century Baroque Painter
Peter Paul Rubens (1577—1640) was a widely successful 17th-century Flemish painter both during his lifetime and following his death. Known for his elaborate Baroque style, Rubens often employed dramatic movement, color, and emotion in his oil paintings. He is also associated with his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, portraits, paintings of allegorical and mythological subjects, and landscapes.
He is commonly seen as one of the most famous artists who worked in the Flemish Baroque tradition. In addition to maintaining a large art workshop in Antwerp, Rubens was also a highly educated Humanist scholar and diplomat—he was knighted by Philip IV of Spain and Charles I of England. In all, his catalogue includes at least 1,403 pieces.
In the words of the artist, “My passion comes from the heavens, not from earthly musings.”
Let’s dive into a bit of his background before exploring Peter Paul Rubens’ famous paintings.
A Brief Biography
Peter Paul Rubens was born to a working-class family in the busy seaport of Antwerp, a city that was also affected by religious conflict. Raised as a Roman Catholic and educated with Humanist traditions, he would become an accomplished student and develop a love of learning.
By the early age of 13, he was an artist’s apprentice; by the age of 21, he was an independent master artist recognized by the Guild. In 1600, he traveled to Italy and was inspired by the dramatic movement and rich colors of works by Italian masters—an inspiration that would influence his mature period. He became a court painter to the Duke of Mantua in Italy who supported him financially.
He left Rome in 1608 upon learning that his mother was ill. He lived near Antwerp and developed a working studio there for most of the rest of his life.
We’re going to get into his style below by exploring some of Peter Paul Rubens’ famous paintings, but briefly, he combines the tradition of Flemish realism with the passion of Italian painter Michelangelo with the dramatic color of Titian.
Rubens created several self-portraits, sometimes by himself and sometimes with his young wife Isabella Brant.
In this particular work, Rubens depicts himself as a distinguished gentleman. He wears expensive and chic black clothing and does not really paint himself as a painter, but rather a diplomat or scholar. The only feature here that tells viewers that we are looking at an artist is that he wears a gold chain, which at the time symbolized an artist’s wealth.
One of several paintings of Peter Paul Rubens in which he depicted himself, here he looks out in a watchful manner at the viewer. It is rather somber, and his dark clothes blend in dramatically with the background.
The Descent from the Cross (1612–1614)
Most of the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens made during the decade of 1610–1620 were enormous works—often altarpieces—commissioned for the Roman Catholic churches. In fact, Rubens was a well-known Catholic figure.
The Descent from the Cross is the middle section of a triptych by the artist. It still stands in its original place in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium. This subject of a crucified Christ being taken down from the cross was one Rubens would return to several times in his career.
This work highlights Ruben’s Baroque art style—Christ’s pale body creates a strong and dramatic diagonal throughout the whole painting, and all the figures revolve around Christ. It was painted in line with the guidelines of the Catholic Church of Trent which aimed to make biblical art more relevant; this subject was highly thought of by the Catholic church at the time.
Venus Frigida (1611)
Another one of Peter Paul Rubens’ famous paintings, Venus Frigida is an oil-on-panel work and is one of the few works that he both signed and dated. This differs from his religious work as it is more mythological, showing his versatility.
The title is derived from a quote by the Roman playwright Terence: “sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus” which translates to “without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus freezes”. This basically reflects the sentiment of love cannot survive without food and wine.
In the painting, Venus the goddess is depicted as a shivering woman in an intense landscape. Perhaps the aspect that is most striking about the painting is Venus’ striking vulnerability as her back is exposed to the viewer. Rubens means to convey the idea of what happens when Venus goes the cold north as opposed to her typical warm climate. Cupid huddles in front of the goddess and Bacchus, the god of ecstasy, is shown wretched and exhausted in the background.
Samson and Delilah (1610)
In this painting, Rubens recreates the moment when Samson falls asleep on Delilah’s lap, and a young man cuts his hair. Samson was a Hebrew hero known for his strength and bravery—he confides in Delilah that his strength comes from his uncut hair, hence the idea of betrayal by Delilah. Another interesting symbol in the composition is the crossed arms of the boy servant, which conveys deceit.
Samson’s body lies in the center, harshly lit by candlelight, is painted using chiaroscuro (Italian for light-dark). His arm is long and muscular, and like many of Rubens’s famous paintings, creates a dramatic Baroque feeling.
The work’s tricky provenance led to long-lived doubts on whether Peter Paul Rubens actually painted it or not; however, within the past century, it’s origin has been confirmed, earning it the title of one of Peter Paul Rubens famous paintings.
The Assumption of the Virgin Mary (1626)
Like The Descent from the Cross mentioned above, The Assumption of the Virgin Mary also resides in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium, and is an oil-on-panel work.
The Assumption of Mary was a very common subject in Catholic art. In this painting, she is being lifted up in a dramatic spiraling motion by many angels. The painting is bright and hints at divine presence; She radiates glory in a way not expressed by the earthly figures. Additionally, the 12 apostles are gathered around her tomb below, looking up in awe as she rises into the sky. She already belongs to higher powers, and Rubens’ masterful painting of her body and facial expression highlights this.
The Cathedral of Our Lady actually held a competition—which was not uncommon for the time—for painters to win the commission for the Assumption altar. It took Rubens 15 years to complete the piece once he was awarded the commission.
A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (1636)
Lastly, let’s explore one of his later works which branch out from his allegorical paintings. From 1627–1630, Rubens focused on his diplomatic career and was often traveling, partially due to the death of his wife Isabella. His later works were made when he settled back down.
Many of the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens are biblical and mythological works, but he was also known for his landscapes. A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (also known by just Het Steen) exemplifies Rubens’ later period. Some art critics view this as one of the best Baroque landscape paintings.
In this composition, Rubens depicts the land around his estate near Antwerp, Belgium. You can see his manor, a cart, and a hunter in the foreground. The work is peaceful—a meandering stream flows on the ground, clouds are tinged with gold, and serene pastoral lands fill in the background. It is reminiscent of a man who is enjoying quiet and comfortable later years in the countryside.
This is one of Peter Paul Rubens most famous paintings, in part, because it is one of the few examples of a work of pleasure rather than an important commission assigned to the artist. Initially, the work was meant to be much smaller and just of his manor, but as he continued working he added panels to paint the beautiful lands around the house, too.
The viewer gets an overhead view of the vast land filled with autumn colors. By the time he painted this during the later period of his career, he was quite successful and wealthy and therefore could afford this type of property.
Peter Paul Rubens – Elevation of the Cross
Source Video: Smarthistory
The Legacy of Peter Paul Rubens
Following his death in 1640, Peter Paul Rubens would continue to exert influence over artists. From Impressionists like Pierre Auguste Renoir to Romantic painters like Eugene Delacroix, artists would be inspired by the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens. In fact, we still use the word Rubenesque to illustrate this influence—this term most often refers to his voluptuous treatment of female bodies.
As we mentioned, he is one of the most famous painters of the Flemish Baroque style. He also produced an astounding amount of work during his lifetime and is considered to be one of the most versatile painters in history. He kept a big organized studio more akin to the likes of Italian Renaissance masters like Raphael, which allowed him to create so much work.
Additionally, he embodies the idea of a Renaissance man—he was talented and well-studied in many disciplines, including architecture, diplomacy, academics, and of course, fine arts.