Sir Peter Paul Rubens, the great Flemish baroque painter is renowned for his mythological and religious paintings but it is his less well known body of work, his portraits of members of the Royal houses of Europe, that is showcased at the current exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg, “Rubens: Princely Portraits”. Rubens’ training as a page during his adolescent years coupled with his charming personality and learned way made him an ideal candidate to move among the Royal courts of Europe. He was much admired by Kings, Queen’s, Princes and Princesses for his artistic talents but these Royals also appeared to have been at ease in his company and went on to show great faith in him by employing him not only as an artist but, from time to time, as a diplomat.
The first Court that Rubens went to work for, aged 23, was that of the Duke of Mantua in Italy where the Gonzaga family had been in power for several centuries. The Duke of Mantua was a great patron of the arts and during Rubens’ time at his court, he painted several portraits of the Duke’s children some of which are shown at the exhibition. The one that stands out is that of his fourth child, Vincent II of Gonzaga (above left ) who would go on to become the seventh Duke of Mantua. Although only around 12, the young Vincent is wearing a coat of armour which stands out brilliantly against a dark background and a beautiful white silky collar. The sitters eyes and facial expression look as if he is about to move towards you. There is also a cute portrait of the Duke’s daughter, Éléonore, aged 2 (above top right) who would go on to become an Empress together with a portrait of the Duke’s second son, Ferdinand (above bottom right). It was during his service to the Duke of Mantua that Rubens was entrusted with his first diplomatic trip when he was sent to Spain bearing gifts for king Philip III of Spain and his court which, despite many hazards, was a success due to Rubens tact and patience.
In late 1608, now in his early thirties, Rubens returned to Antwerp, which along with the rest of the Netherlands, had been subjected to religious wars for many years between the catholic Spanish Netherlands ( basically modern day Belgium) and the Protestant Dutch Republic ( basically today’s Netherlands ). In fact Rubens’ father was a Calvinist who had to flee Antwerp in 1568 with his family due to the persecution of Protestants. After his father’s death the family returned to Antwerp where Rubens was raised as a Catholic. This, no doubt, had an influence on Rubens’ willingness to undertake peace missions as he hoped all his life for a resolution to the conflict between the protestants of the Dutch Republic and the catholics of the Spanish Netherlands. The Archduke Albert and the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenie ruled the Spanish Netherlands on behalf of Spain and on Rubens’ return, they persuaded him to enter their service. The exhibition includes serveral portraits of the couple but I have included two very different paintings by Rubens of the archduchess. The first, above, is a very formal portrait which Rubens executed in partnership with his friend, the renowned landscape artist, Jan Brueghel the elder. Rubens painted the archduchess in full royal attire and Brueghel painted the residence which was the royal couple’s country retreat at Mariemont. The second, right, is my preferred, showing a very differently dressed Archduchess who now wears a nun’s habit as following the death of her husband in 1621, she joined a religious order as a lay person. This second portrait shows a kind of intimacy between the painter and sitter which reflects the close relationship Rubens enjoyed with the Archduchess who like his previous employers entrusted him with diplomatic missions to Spain at a time when Spain was seeking a diplomatic solution between the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic.
At this time Philip IV was King of Spain and whilst Rubens was visiting, the King commissioned him to paint some portraits. Not only was the King impressed with Rubens but so too was the official court painter, Velázquez. The above equestrian portrait of King Philip IV showing at the exhibition and on loan from the Uffizi Gallery, Florence is in fact attributed to Velázquez but was inspired by an equestrian portrait by Rubens which once hung in the Kings’s palace but which is today lost. The influence of Rubens is clear as the scene is full of colour, drama and storytelling with three figures flying over the head of the King. Like other Royals of Europe, King Philip sent Rubens on a diplomatic mission, this time to England in an effort to negotiate peace between the two countries at a time following the failed attack of the Spanish Armada on England. King Charles I warmly received Rubens and although there is no portrait of the King at the exhibition, the self portrait of Rubens at the top was owned by the King of England and is on loan to the exhibition from the Royal collections of England. The portrait does not show Rubens with his brushes and palette which was more typical of self portraits at the time but Rubens instead chose to depict himself as a diplomat with the gold necklace around his neck referring to his role as a diplomat.
The othe major Court to engage Rubens was France from whom he received a commission from Marie de Medici, Queen Mother of France to paint the Medici Cycle, a monumental allegorical cycle depicting the life of the Queen and her family which is now hanging in its own gallery in the Louvre. The exhibition displays several portraits of the Queen but the one on the left was still in Rubens possessions when he died. The background is unfinished and despite the fact that the Queen is formally dressed and sitting regally, Rubens still manages to portait her in a very human way. The ability of Rubens to capture the human side of his sitter is even further noticeable in the small intimate portrait Rubens did of the Queens son, King Louis XIII, also in 1622 and it really gives you the sense of how Rubens must have made his royal sitters so at ease in his company. This painting is unique as it was made from real life face to face with the sitter and the fact that the King gave Rubens this kind of time shows the regard he was held in. It was this type of intimacy with the Royals which allowed Rubens to pursue his diplomatic missions. Contrast that with the splendid portrait of the King and his wife Queen Anne of Austria where there is no mistaking their Royal status. These last two portraits are spectacular, especially that of the King and the colours are as dynamic today as they must have been when first executed.
The exhibition demonstrates that Rubens was not only considered to be the greatest portrait painter of his generation but that he was also very involved with the political life of his era. For his diplomatic missions Rubens was knighted twice, first in 1624 by King Philip IV of Spain and in 1630 by King Charles I of England. So if you are like me and you enjoy art mixed up with a bit of history, this exhibition is definitely for you.