Today when we think of artists, we often think of emotionally or psychologically disturbed individuals, staking out radical positions, challenging authority, championing unpopular issues, or in general just being rebels. This however, is not what artists were in the 17 and 18th century, with the exception of notable figures like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, or we might add in the 19th century Van Gogh, who have, arguably, created the melancholy temperamental view of the artist.
Artists, historically, were viewed as craftsmen, who were given their talents by God to bring beauty and light into the world, to raise man up to God, by the medium of art. It is in the Netherlands that oil painting first became the supreme art by the genius of Jan van Eyck. It is in the Netherlands that an artist obtained nobility, fame, and wealth by respectability virtue and above all his devotion to the Catholic faith. That artist was Peter Paul Rubens.
There are a number of good works about Rubens’ art, and no biography can do without talking about it. However, Master of Shadows, by Mark Lamster, is about another, less known side of Rubens, not as painter, but as a diplomat and spy. He couldn’t have been born at a better time for it either. Spain and the nascent Dutch Republic were at war, and Spain, the greatest empire in the world, was on the losing side it seemed. The real losers were the inhabitants of the Spanish Netherlands (modern day Belgium) who were ruled by a foreign power that did not understand them, prevented from making peace with their Protestant neighbors, and their greatest city, Antwerp, turned into a ghost town on account of the Dutch blockade of the Schlect, the main river leading to it from the English channel. It was his native Flanders that Rubens loved, and he would devote his life to bringing it, and the rest of Europe, peace.
What is fascinating about this biography, is that we find Rubens continually involved with the great men of his time. Not just the Duke’s of Mantua, his first big patron, but the Spanish regents of the Netherlands, the Empress Maria and the Count of Lerma Philip IV’s chief counselor, Philip IV himself, the scheming Count Olivarez, the kind and upright general Spignola, and conversely, Marie de Medici, Chrales I of England, and many other contemporary artists and poets. He clashed swords, diplomatically speaking, with Cardinal Richelieu and won, he was knighted by Philip IV of Spain and also by Charles I of England. His correspondence was enormous, and his art production in the thousands of works, and even more copies of other great masters. What I have always particularly admired in Rubens, is his staunch Catholicism, married to his love of the pagan classics. Like Raphael or Michaelangelo in the 16th century, for Rubens, classical and mythological themes were often used as an expression of Christian virtue, and they saw no particular contradiction in it. This was of course, the luxury of a christian age that had survived and long since vanquished the old paganism. Nevertheless, that pagan inheritance is the key to understanding most of Rubens’ art, as well as his life.
Flemish by birth, in a city where one could speak either Flemish or French, Rubens chose to speak Italian, which at that time was the mark of an educated and intelligent man, as opposed to the 19th century where British culture popularized the Italian as thief and pirate.
What Lamster brings out about Rubens in this work is two-fold: a) His work ethic and discipline b) his moral integrity, manners and discretion. For instance, Rubens’ wife died while he was in his 30s, but he re-married in his 50s, and was celibate for the entire 20 years he was single. One of the reasons we know this, is because Richelieu wanted all dirt possible dug up on Rubens, because he knew that the later was a Spanish agent, but his vast spy network came out empty handed.
The work traces Rubens’ career, from birth in strained circumstances in Flanders, to his education at a grammar school, where he learned Latin and Greek, French and Italian. He then embarked for Italy, where he spent several years in the retinue of the Duke of Mantua, at the same time as the great composer Claudio Monteverdi was also composing for the duke. He busied himself with the normal jobs of a young artist, copying the great masters, and innovating his own techniques. He was heavily influenced by Caravaggio, and it is apart of Rubens’ genius that he was able to appropriate elements of Caravaggio’s painting, but not become a slavish copier as many of the continuators of the painter, the Caravaggisti, would later be known for. He went to Rome shortly after Caravaggio had been condemned in absentia for murdering Rannucio Tommasoni in a duel, and was able to acquire a number of commissions this way.
While in the Duke of Mantua’s retinue, he was entrusted with the job of bringing a number of paintings to Spain which were to be presented as a gift to the highly influential Duke of Lerma, the chief counselor to King Philip IV, at that time considered the greatest monarch in the world. In this first visit to the Spanish court, Rubens would be able to see up close the Spanish court and its workings, which would help him appreciate later how the Spanish work.
While back at Rome, however, received news that his mother was dying, and hastened back to Flanders. He narrowly missed his mother’s passing, but was fortunate in that around the same time, the Spanish and the Dutch were celebrating the twelve years truce (circa 1609), and were the city council of Antwerp wanted a painting to commemorate the event. Lucky for them, they had a young painter who had already acquired fame in Italy. How better, than to have a son of Antwerp paint a work celebrating a truce which would free the city economically? Thus, Rubens painted the first of his works on the theme of the Adoration of the Magi.
The painting’s meaning is clear, the kings of the earth adore the infant Jesus, bearing gifts, the gifts are the fruits of the peace, presented to the prince of peace. A man in gold fabrics kneels before the Christ child, who represents the Spanish, the man in a simple red garment represents the Dutch Republic, rich but austere. One thing that has baffled art historians, is the presence of an oriental figure standing just behind the main action, wearing glorious blue robes. Many times in depictions of this scene, oriental figures are depicted like Europeans, or depicted looking somewhat dumb, or lacking majesty. Rubens dresses him in rich blue garments and with jewels. The reason for this, is he is depicting the gifts of the orient (at that time called the East Indies), which could now flow freely while the Spanish and Dutch are not fighting each other at every corner of the world.
The work was a hit, and launched Rubens onto the international stage. It was at this point that he was invited by the Empress Isabella, the Spanish regent of the Netherlands, to undertake diplomatic work for Spain. In spite of Rubens’ many duties, his busy life in his workshop, the constant demands for his work, he nevertheless through himself into this energy and alacrity. His decorum made him trusted by Isabella, even though he was seriously mistrusted by the Spanish court for being a commoner who “worked by his hands” (something despised by the old nobility, which looked at privilege and position as something more noble than work). Philip IV would rectify this by knighting him, but he nevertheless, could not escape the veneer of a mere workman in the eyes of the Spanish aristocrats, no matter how polished his manners and splendid his decorum.
Lamster’s narrative takes us into Holland, France, and even distant England, where Rubens painted the famous Apotheosis of King James which even today adorns the ceiling at Whitehall. It is here, that Rubens, solely through his tact, decorum and discretion, outwitted Richelieu’s over-reaching and tactless ambassador’s, and prevented an alliance of England and France against Spain. What is glorious about it, is if one is not familiar with history of this period, Lamster’s narrative is simple and explanatory enough that one does not feel lost or amiss following Rubens around Europe.
At the end of his life, Rubens gave up his stardom and ambassadorial life, to retire in Flanders where he married again. He began, at this juncture, to carry out a number of landscaping works, depicting a peaceful life at home. He had labored his whole life for peace, through his art, and through his perilous missions, and it was peace he most longed for now. The twelve years truce had lapsed, and the Dutch and Spanish would be at it until the end of the Thirty Years War. That war, so destructive and pointless, tore Europe apart and left millions in misery. Thus we have one of Rubens’ last works, a picture of the Flemish landscape.
The shepherds and farmers sit at ease with their wives, another is playing music, within easy site of their habitations. Its an idyllic day, with the sun shining, yet a storm which provides a cool breeze. The reality is behind that rainbow is a terrible storm on its way. On this side of the rainbow, is Flanders as it ought to be, while on the other side, is the dark stormy reality of war, both religious and political. The sad thing is the history of the Spanish Netherlands would turn out as the image of the storm, not the peaceful scene in the country. Conquered alternatively by French and Dutch, it would not know peace until the modern era.
Rubens however, is one of the greatest of painters, but understanding his works requires, like with the renaissance masters, an understanding of both the Christian world and the classical tradition which gave them birth. Understanding Rubens the man, however, requires knowing his century, and “Master of Shadows”, is a fantastic biography to start with.