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Rubens, a Master Painter of the Northern Renaissance


Peter Paul Rubens, a prolific Belgian painter, painted small sketches that his studio would then paint big enabling him to crank out countless grand canvases: mythic battles, Catholic miracles, bloody hunts, and fleshy “Rubenesque” women.

Complete Video Script

[50] In the same generation, farther north, here in Belgium, the most prolific and influential Baroque painter was Peter Paul Rubens. A favorite of Europe's wealthy, Rubens painted extravagant scenes with a dynamism that has come to define the Baroque style.

[51, Peter Paul Rubens, 1577–1640] Well-traveled, cultured, and confident, Rubens exemplified the exuberance of the age. Running his studio like a factory, he cranked out a steady stream of high-energy canvases.

[52] He'd start with a rough sketch and he'd give that to his assistants in his studio and they would paint the massive canvas. When it was just about done, Rubens would come back in and give it what they called "the fury of the brush" — a little twinkle in the eye…a little glimmer here… a little light there. When he was satisfied, another Rubens masterpiece was shipped off to his wealthy patrons.

[53] Rubens painted anything that would raise your pulse: battles, miracles, hunts and especially, fleshy "Rubenesque" women with dimples on all four cheeks. Expert at composition, Rubens could arrange a teeming tangle of many figures into a harmonious ensemble.

[54, Diana and her Nymphs Surprised by Satyrs, 1640, Rubens, Prado Museum, Madrid] In this Greek myth, when lecherous half-human satyrs crash a party of nymphs, the action unfolds as satyrs chase and women flee…it's a horrible crescendo of violence…a cresting wave of flailing limbs and chaotic figures that threatens to crash over the poor nymphs…until the fierce goddess Diana (the huntress) plants her feet and makes a brave stand to save the day.

[55, The Three Graces, 1639, Rubens, Prado Museum, Madrid] In his Baroque take on this classical theme, Rubens amps up the traditional Three Graces to plus-size splendor. Amid a flowery garden, he skillfully captures their glowing skin and rippling curves. With graceful limbs, the women intertwine, creating a rhythmic line, echoed by the meaningful glances they exchange. One Grace is none other than Rubens' own wife, whose sweet face graces many of his canvases.

[56, The Adoration of the Magi, 1634, Rubens, Kings College Chapel, Cambridge] Rubens was equally adept at religious scenes. When the Magi visited the Christ child, all the adoring gazes — the Wise Men up one way…the angels down the other…are directed to the focus of the scene: a radiant baby Jesus.

[57, Feast of the Bean King, 1645, Jordaens, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] Baroque artists certainly knew how to satisfy their patrons. Whether powering the Church's message both in grand ways or intimate ways…making ancient myths and legends come to life…inflating the egos of the powerful…or just capturing a wild and crazy party, for Baroque artists, life was always filled with drama…