The famous paintings of Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640) are best assessed within the social and political context which gave birth to the Baroque style. So a quick review of some European history…

In 1517, the German priest Martin Luther publicly challenged the spiritual authority, doctrines and practice of the Catholic Church.  His popularity was particularly pronounced in Northern Europe, where his devotees created Reformed, or Protestant, churches.

Left: Peter Paul Rubens.

To squelch the popularity of this movement, Pope Paul III convened the Council of Trent in 1545. With his cardinals, the Pope took the following actions in an attempt to restore the supremacy of the Church:

  • codifying Church doctrines and spiritual practices;
  • reducing financial abuses;
  • reforming the practice of granting indulgences, and
  • addressing other Church improprieties publicized by Luther.

The Council, which met until 1563, also launched the Counter Reformation to, among other objectives, expand its influence by building new churches.

Painters were commissioned to create emotionally stirring, powerful works of art declaring the supremacy of the Catholic Church while stirring faith among non-believers. This was the background during creation of the Baroque style, one marked by intentional sensuality, prominence of color, dynamism of figures, and emotional appeal.

The most famous painter of this era is Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Additionally, he was renowned as a scholar and diplomat who spoke and wrote French, German, Latin and Spanish in addition to his native Flemish. Classically trained, Rubens devoted himself to reproducing the Italian masters in his sketches and paintings, creating his artwork for nobility, private citizens and the Church.

Right: Peter Paul Rubens. Venus and Adonis, c. 1635. Oil on canvas, 77 3/4″ x 95 5/8″. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Like other famous painters in great demand, Rubens operated a massive workshop; his included such notable assistants including Anthony van Dyck and Jan Brueghel The Younger.  In the workshop, Rubens sketched out his fundamental idea which was then given to assistants; Rubens alone, however, placed the finishing touches on each of his works of art.

The idea of the painter as the sole executor of a work is a relatively recent notion, clearly one that would have been alien to Rubens.

In spite of his admiration for the art of antiquity, the figures in Rubens’ paintings are dynamic and life-like, especially his female nudes – his were less rigid and more sensuous than any previously portrayed in art history.  Indeed, the term “Rubenesque” still describes ample-bodied, heavy-waisted and voluptuous women (even some with dimpled and cellulite-laden flesh!)

Such a Rubenesque woman is seen in Venus and Adonis, one of the best known Rubens paintings.

Here, Venus and her son, Cupid, try to prevent Adonis from departing on a hunt. As hunting dogs impatiently await, Venus vainly restrains Adonis, aware of his future – he will be attacked by

Titian. Venus and Adonis. Oil on canvas, 42 x 52 1/2 inches. The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.16).  Metropolitan Museum of Art

a wild boar and, as a mortal, will perish from these wounds. Adonis’ legs reflect his ambiguity — his left leg is poised for departure while his right leg is firmly planted, as if he will accept Venus’ embrace.  The red paint in this work is positively luminous, recalling Guido Reni’s quip about Rubens: “The fellow mixes blood with his colors.”

Rubens’ painting was inspired by Titian’s version of the Venus and Adonis theme, which Rubens saw in Madrid at the Prado and copied in 1628 – 1629.  Titian created two versions of this work, one at the Met and the other at the Prado.

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