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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Peter Paul Rubens

As any successful painter will tell you, it takes more than mere talent to be a successful painter.  Colleges and universities today turn out talented painters by the thousands but few ever go on to anything like the success of an enthusiastic, energetic, intelligent, and very personable young Flemish painter who decided in his late teens he wanted to be an artist, then moved the necessary mountains to do so. His name was Peter Paul Rubens. He was born in 1577 in Germany. His father, a Protestant, had fled Antwerp in Holland to escape religious persecution. The elder Rubens died when young Peter was a child of ten so his mother, a Catholic, moved her brood back to Holland and a life of the severest poverty imaginable. Little is known of the young man's early art education, but he must have been an apt pupil because at the tender age of 21, he was admitted to the Antwerp painters guild.   
Lacking funds to set up his own studio, Rubens worked as an artist in the studio of Otto van Veen until the year 1600 when he set out on his own for Italy. There he visited every major city on the peninsula in an effort to "soak up" the abundant culture of antiquities that was still the stock-in-trade of the venerable, old-world country. In the process his talent as a painter was quickly recognized and his statesmanlike charm allowed him to gather commissions for important works like some men today collect phone numbers. Eventually, his work came to the attention of the Duke of Mantua who employed him to design court entertainment and paint a few portraits. Although he never purchased any major work from the budding young artist, the duke, something of a pretentious cheapskate, did employ him to copy famous paintings from all over Italy for his own collection.
The Raising of the Cross, 1610, Peter Paul Rubens
With this valuable experience under his belt, Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1608, married, and almost immediately picked up a commission from the Church of Saint Walpurga for a massive, canvas, triptych altarpiece entitled The Raising of the Cross, of which the center unit alone is some 15 feet high by 11 feet wide. As was customary, the side units were the same height but about half that width. Here, custom and tradition ended however, in that he painted a single, baroque, dramatically lit, split-scene among the three units; the left side depicting the horrified mourners, the central unit, a herculean effort on the part of several muscle-bound, semi-nude figures to erect the life-size cross with Christ already nailed to it, while the right unit features the two thieves being manhandled by Roman guards, one of which is mounted on a horse.

The strongly diagonal composition of the central unit reflects the Italian influence of artists like Caravaggio and Carracci, but also evident is the careful attention to color, detail, and texture so typical of his native Flemish painting. In the years to follow, Rubens went on to capitalize upon these elements, organizing and overseeing a virtual art factory of apprentices and assistants, each with specialties such as costumes, still-lifes, landscapes, portraiture, and animal painting to name only a few.  Sounds almost like a modern-day movie studio!   

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