Peter Paul Rubens (b. 1577–d. 1640) was an extraordinary figure who inhabited, effected, and even defined many aspects of the early modern European world. Far more than just a hugely successful painter, he was a scholar and a diplomat, a person who could produce allegorical images of the same peace treaties he was negotiating, or who carefully interpreted both material and textual sources—in original languages—when creating a mythological scene. He worked on a political level with the same powerful patrons for whom he painted, spending substantial time in courts and urban centers of the Southern and Northern Netherlands, Italy, Spain, France, and England; in every place he absorbed local culture and left his mark on it. Prints after his works traveled to the New World and helped mold its visual culture. Rubens’s relationship to the art of the past was transformative, for he knew and absorbed works both famous and obscure; he redefined the canon, through the lens of his own art, for generations to come. His work spanned painting, printmaking, architecture, sculpture, book illustration, tapestry design, and décor for political pageantry. He executed important works on every kind of subject matter: mythologies, political allegories, portraits, landscapes, hunting scenes. And he was the painter of the Catholic Reformation, filling churches across the continent with devotional imagery and illustrating theological texts. If he did not work in a given genre himself, he collaborated with colleagues who did. The sheer volume of his work in so many media is astonishing, the effect of a tireless inventive mind aided by a workshop so large that it occupied most of the artistic space in Antwerp, employing painters who, in other circumstances, might have been competitors. Internationally famous in his own day, Rubens’s prestige has never faltered. He was the subject of debates in early art academies; his works found homes in Europe’s elite collections; his letters about art, diplomacy, and scholarship were preserved and published. To the primary source material, an immense amount of academic study has been added. Serious overviews of his life and work are relatively rare, however, for Rubens is hard to encompass between the covers of a single book. The attempt to produce a catalogue of all of Rubens’s work, divided into forty-four volumes and multivolume sets, each with its own author(s), has been in progress for fifty years and is not yet complete. The bibliography below is exceptionally long because that is the nature of Rubens studies: immense, diffuse, complicated, and collaborative.
General Works on Rubens
There have been rather few serious attempts to cover all of Rubens in a single scholarly text. Four useful modern works available in English are the small volumes Belkin 1998 and Warnke 1980, the larger and more thorough White 1987, and the still more comprehensive Simson 1996. An earlier text that is classic and still worthy of consideration is Burckhardt 1950 (first published 1898). Heinen 2009 calls for an ideological critique of the older Rubens research. Rooses 1886–1892 and Jaffé 1989 are valiant efforts at producing a complete catalogue of Rubens’s work, a task more fully undertaken by the massive Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, the thematic volumes of which are listed separately in relevant sections.
Belkin, Kristin Lohse. Rubens. London: Phaidon, 1998.
Good, reliable introduction to Rubens by a solid scholar. Covers biography, interpretation, and also studio practices. Lots of color illustrations. Includes useful chronology of Rubens’s life paralleled by relevant historical events.
Burckhardt, Jacob. Recollections of Rubens. Translated by Mary Hottinger. London: Phaidon, 1950.
With introduction and notes by Horst Gerson. English edition of classic work, Erinnungen aus Rubens, first published in 1898. Not an overview but a study of Rubens’s artistic personality, with a focus on his debt to antiquity and his place in Baroque culture, written by one of the great historians.
Heinen, Ulrich. “Kunstgeschichte als Funktion populistischer Ideologie: Max Rooses (1839–1914)—Kunsthistoriker und ‘Führer im flämischen Lager.’” Kritische Berichte 1 (2009): 55–94.
A reconstruction of the national political context of the earlier Rubens research in Flanders.
Jaffé, Michael. Rubens: Catalogo Completo. Translated by Germano Mulazzani. Milan: Rizzoli, 1989.
Useful reference work. A series of preliminary essays treat Rubens’s assistants and collaborators, his portraits, and his characteristics as an “Italian” artist and as a Northern one. A forty-page chronology lays out all the events in Rubens’s life known from documents and letters. This is followed by the catalogue of 1,403 paintings and oil sketches, with small illustrations, arranged chronologically, and with works related to individual commissions clustered together.
Rooses, Max. L’oeuvre de P.P. Rubens: Histoire et description de ses tableaux et dessins. Antwerp, Belgium: J. Maes, 1886–1892.
The foundational study.
Simson, Otto von. Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640): Humanist, Maler und Diplomat. Mainz, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 1996.
Important, posthumously published results of a major art historian’s nearly lifelong thinking about Rubens, with emphasis on Rubens as narrator, thinker, and as actor in the world into which his paintings entered.
Warnke, Martin. Peter Paul Rubens. Translated by Donna Pedini Simpson. New York: Barron’s, 1980.
General but thought-provoking and valuable survey. Four chapters, each on a “sphere”: the personal, the humanistic/ecclesiastic, the political, and the artistic. Useful appendices as well, including texts by Rubens on art and a twenty-page chronology of his life and work. First published in 1977 in German by DuMont.
White, Christopher. Peter Paul Rubens: Man and Artist. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.
Reliable general monograph with lots of nice illustrations. Very good in summarizing the state of Rubens research at its time, without trying to go beyond that. Careful use of primary sources, especially Rubens’s own letters.
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