Renaissance and Reformation Peter Paul Rubens
Koenraad Jonckheere
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0094


Sir Peter Paul Rubens (b. 1577–d. 1640) was a 17th-century Flemish artist, humanist, and diplomat. His importance for the development of Baroque art across Europe can hardly be overstressed. After participating in a humanist education in Cologne and Antwerp and being trained in painting in Antwerp, Rubens traveled to Italy to become the court painter of the Duke of Mantua. He lived, worked, traveled, and studied in Italy for eight years and returned to Antwerp in 1608, where he immediately became the leading artist of the city and set up a large workshop. His fame rapidly spread and his Counter-Reformation art was admired and desired at most European courts. Rubens was a much-respected diplomat for the archdukes Albrecht and Isabella, as well as an erudite humanist.

General Overviews

Many monographic studies, in many different formats, on Rubens and his art were published over the last two centuries. Some of them are trustworthy introductions to the artist; others are best to be avoided for the purposes of factual research. Of all biographies and general overviews published before 1985, Balis 1985, regarding dissident views of the artist, is a good guide. The best recent overviews are Belkin 1998 and the catalogue from the exhibition in Lille, France, Brejon de Lavergnée 2004. Appealing insights, mainly on the personality of Rubens, can be found in Downes 1980 and Büttner 2006. Older landmark studies on Rubens are White 1987 and Baudouin 1977. A classic text written by one of the most renowned Rubens scholars, Jacob Burckhardt, is Gerson 1950. Von Simson 1996 is also worthy of being included on this list of overviews, although this is a posthumous compendium of work by the scholar on the artist and thus not a classic biography as such.

  • Balis, Arnout. “Rubens: Beeld en tegenbeeld: Iets over dissidente Rubensbiografieën.” In Rubens and his World: Bijdragen, études, studies, Beiträge: Opgedragen aan Prof. Dr. R.-A. d’Hulst. Edited by Arnout Balis and Frans Baudouin, 331–344. Antwerp, Belgium: Het Gulden Cabinet, 1985.

    This essay on “dissident” Rubens biographies is crucial reading, in addition to Rubens’s biographies.

  • Baudouin, Frans. Pietro Pauolo Rubens. Antwerp, Belgium: Mercatorfonds, 1977.

    Although this is a compilation of articles rather than a classis monograph, this often-used book offers an excellent introduction to different aspects of the artist.

  • Belkin, Kristin Lohse. Rubens A & I (Art and Ideas). London: Phaidon, 1998.

    Possibly the most used, and probably the most comprehensive, recent introduction to Peter Paul Rubens.

  • Brejon de Lavergnée, Arnauld, ed. Rubens: Lille, Palais des beaux-arts, 6 March–14 June 2004. Ghent, Belgium: Snoeck, 2004.

    Catalogue of a major monographic exhibition of Peter Paul Rubens at Palais des beaux-arts in Lille, France. Traditionally conceived but with recent insights.

  • Büttner, Nils. Herr P. P. Rubens: Von der Kunst, berühmt zu werden. Rekonstruktion der Künste 7. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006.

    An original, very clever, and precise biography by Nils Büttner, a renowned Rubens scholar.

  • Downes, Kerry. Rubens. London: Jupiter, 1980.

    A good, rather atypical biography with a broad approach.

  • Gerson, Horst, ed. Recollections of Rubens. London: Phaidon, 1950.

    The author of this text, Jacob Burckhardt, was the most renowned Rubens scholar of the 20th century. This biography on Rubens is a classic. Somewhat outdated but still used systematically by many.

  • von Simson, Otto Georg. Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640): Humanist, Maler und Diplomat. Berliner Schriften zur Kunst 8. Mainz, Germany: von Zabern, 1996.

    Von Simson’s work on Rubens is not a classic biography or monograph as such; it is a posthumous volume of essays written by a scholar who studied Rubens only occasionally but who proposes original lines of research.

  • White, Christopher. Peter Paul Rubens: Man & Artist. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1987.

    One of the most lauded Rubens biographies of the last three decades. Although it is conventional, it is certainly one of the best introductions to the subject.

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