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Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens


The Hapsburg King of Spain, Philip II (1527-1598), rules the Netherlands and the Hapsburg lands in Austria, Naples, Sicily, and Milan.

In reaction against the Catholic Church and the absolutism of Hapsburg rule, Protestants lead an iconoclastic movement, destroying and looting thousands of churches and monasteries in the Netherlands. The Protestants object to the presence of religious images in churches, claiming that Catholics believe the paintings and statues of saints and biblical figures that they worship are actually holy rather than mere representations. Thousands of works of art are destroyed during this time. With no tolerance for the Protestant Reformation, which has been underway since the early sixteenth century, the Catholic King Philip orders the persecution of Protestants.


Jan Rubens, Rubens's father, a convert from Catholicism to Calvinism (a Protestant sect), flees from Flanders to Westphalia (now Germany) to escape religious persecution.


King Philip's former lieutenant William the Silent, Prince of Orange (1533-1584), leads the revolt against Philip and Spanish rule in the Netherlands. William converts to Calvinism, and comes to be considered a hero of the Protestants in the Netherlands.


On June 28 Peter Paul Rubens is born in exile in Siegen, Westphalia. He is the sixth child of Jan Rubens and Maria Pypelinckx. The family is under house arrest in Siegen because, in Cologne, Jan Rubens has committed adultery with Anne of Saxony, the wife of William the Silent.


The family returns to Cologne after Jan Rubens receives a final pardon.


The Union of Utrecht is signed, in which the seven northern provinces of the Netherlands band together to resist Spanish rule.


The seven northern provinces declare their sovereignty as a Dutch Republic independent of Spain. The southern provinces (now Belgium and Luxembourg) continue to be ruled by the Spanish monarchy.


Rubens and his brother Philip begin their lessons in the classics (Latin and Greek), grammar, and rhetoric, taught by their highly educated father.


Beginning to feel threatened by the acts of the Counter-Reformation in Cologne, the Rubens family converts back to Catholicism. Soon after the conversion, Jan Rubens dies.


Rubens's mother moves the family back to their hometown of Antwerp, located in the Spanish-controlled southern Netherlands.

In the late sixteenth century, Antwerp is a major center for banking and international trade. However, the city is recovering from a major war, and is plagued by famine, shortages, and poverty. In addition, there are continuing trade barriers set up by the Dutch in the north, which will finally be lifted in the early 1590s.

In Antwerp, the Rubens brothers study with Romuldus Verdonck, a Greek and Latin specialist.


At age thirteen, Rubens is sent to be an apprentice in the studio of the artist Tobias Verhaecht, where he earns a small living. Rubens performs duties such as grinding paint, tidying the studio, and cleaning the brushes; he learns the basics of painting by watching and imitating his master.


Rubens joins the studio of Otto van Veen (1556-1629), a brilliant, successful artist and thinker who specializes in portraits and religious and historical paintings. This cultured man teaches Rubens the charms of the classics and instills in him the idea that every ambitious painter must travel to Italy to copy the works of that country's great masters.


After the trade barriers in Antwerp are lifted, there is a major effort to rebuild the city. Archduke Albert of Austria (1559-1621) becomes the Hapsburg governor of the southern Netherlands, stationed in Antwerp.


Archduke Albert and his wife, the Spanish Infanta Isabella (1566-1633), daughter of Philip II, are granted sovereignty over the Spanish Netherlands. They are great patrons of the arts, and under their rule, many new churches are built and decorated with expansive painting cycles.

Rubens is accorded the rank of master painter in the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke, where he is in the company of great northern masters. Rubens feels very drawn to Italy, and makes plans to travel there.


Rubens travels to Italy. The great Italian painters Titian, Paolo Veronese, and Jacopo Tintoretto are major influences on the artist. Almost immediately after his arrival, Rubens begins to work for Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga of Mantua (1562-1612).

Mantua is an important artistic center and has been a fiefdom of the Gonzaga family for centuries. The Gonzagas are great collectors and patrons of the arts. Obsessed with the paintings of the Renaissance masters, the duke sends Rubens to copy their masterpieces for the ducal collection, providing excellent training for the artist.

In February of this year, Giordano Bruno, advocate of the Copernican theory that the sun is the center of the cosmos and that the earth revolves around the sun like the other planets, is burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for heresy.


In Rome, Rubens paints Head of a Youth, one of his earliest oil sketches.


Rubens gets his first public commission in Rome, for the Chapel of Saint Elena in Santa Croce. In Rome, Rubens is inspired by Michelangelo, Raphael, and ancient Greco-Roman sculpture.


Serving as the duke's emissary, Rubens brings gifts from Gonzaga to King Philip III of Spain. He stays in Spain to produce a painting for the Duke of Lerma.


Rubens returns to Mantua and receives an official position and salary from Gonzaga. He paints the Baptism of Christ for a Jesuit church in Mantua.


Rubens returns to Rome, where he is exposed to the paintings of Caravaggio and the Cavaliere d'Arpino. He learns elements of the Baroque style from their realistic yet highly theatrical and sensuous compositions. With introductions from his brother, who is also in Rome, Rubens associates with other humanist intellectuals.

Michelangelo Caravaggio paints St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness.


Rubens receives his first important commission in Rome, painting for the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella. Gonzaga tries to bring Rubens back to Mantua, but Rubens, already a clever diplomat, persuades the duke to allow him to stay in Rome.


Rubens learns that his mother is dying and immediately returns to Antwerp. By the end of this year, Rubens decides to stay in Antwerp rather than return to his beloved Italy.

Almost immediately after his return, Rubens is employed by the wealthy Antwerp burgemeester, antiquarian, and collector Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), who becomes a very important patron and friend.


Philip III of Spain agrees to a Twelve Years' Truce between Spain and the northern Netherlands.

After establishing his workshop in Antwerp, Rubens becomes court painter to the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella. He paints his first local commission, the Adoration of the Magi, for Antwerp's town hall.

Rubens marries Isabella Brant, daughter of Jan Brant, jurist and chancellor of Antwerp.

Rubens is believed to have painted the oil sketches The Capture of Samson and Samson and Delilah between 1609 and 1610. The Cincinnati sketch is the modello for the large painting of Samson and Delilah commissioned by Antwerp burgemeester Nicolaas Rockox, now in the National Gallery, London.


Rubens is commissioned to paint his first major altarpiece, The Raising of the Cross, for the Church of Saint Walpurga.

Rubens is very prosperous, collecting art and antiquities and establishing a highly productive workshop. In addition to court commissions, he is in very high demand by the "militant" Counter-Reformation church of Flanders, which sees his emotional religious scenes as publicity and recruitment tools for the Catholic cause.

Galileo Galilei's discoveries with his telescope are published in Sidereus Nuncius, in which he challenges the notion that the sun revolves around the earth expressed in the biblical Book of Joshua.


Rubens's beloved brother Philip dies unexpectedly at age thirty-eight.


Around this time, Rubens's sketch of Samson and Delilah (1609) serves as the modello for an engraving by the Haarlem printmaker Jacob Matham (1571-1631). Matham was associated with the Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), the leading engraver of his time.

On June 29, Shakespeare's Globe Theater in London burns to the ground. The fire is apparently the result of a cannon shot, part of the performance, that accidentally ignites the roof. Later in this year, Shakespeare retires to Stratford-upon-Avon.


It is believed that Rubens paints the oil sketch Head of a Young Warrior in this year. This head study was probably referenced in the background of Rubens's St. Ambrose Barring Emperor Theodosius from Entering the Cathedral, painted (with the assistance of Anthony van Dyck) in about 1616-17.

Rubens is elected to be the head of the Romanists, a social group of humanists.

Rubens's first son Albert is born, and the Archduke Albert of Austria is named his godfather.

Rubens paints the Assumption and collaborates with Jan Bruegel and Frans Snyders on a series of hunting scenes.

The Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, later called New York, is settled.


Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) joins Rubens's studio.

William Shakespeare, poet and playwright, dies at age 52.


It is believed that at this time Rubens begins a series of five oil sketches depicting the story of Decius Mus for tapestry designs. Commissioned by a Genoese businessman, Franco Cattaneo, from the Antwerp tapestry merchants Jan Raes and Frans Sweerts, this is Rubens's first large tapestry commission.

Rubens's second son, Nicolas, is born.

Rubens paints The Great Last Judgment for the Jesuit church in Neuberg.


The Thirty Years' War begins, a result of ongoing territorial, dynastic, and religious issues among the German Protestants, France, Sweden, Denmark, England, and the Holy Roman Empire represented by the Hapsburgs. Alliances and treaties will be made and broken between all these factions throughout the war.

Rubens paints the oil sketch Head of a Negro around this time. Unlike many of Rubens's head studies, this oil sketch cannot be connected with any known painting by the artist.


Rubens is commissioned to paint three altarpieces and thirty-nine ceiling paintings as his first major decorative commission for the new Jesuit church in Antwerp. Only the oil sketches of this key early commission survive, as the church was destroyed in a fire in 1718.

On December 23, the Protestant Huguenots declare war on Catholic King Louis XIII of France.

Aboard the Mayflower, the English Puritan Pilgrims arrive at Plymouth, founding the first permanent settlement in New England.


The Twelve Years' Truce between the independent northern Netherlands and the Spanish-governed south ends. Albert and Isabella had hoped for a more permanent peace, but after the end of the truce, conflict resumes, becoming part of the wider European Thirty Years' War, which will continue until 1648. Albert dies and Isabella must defer to the sovereignty of Spain, now led by King Philip IV. Isabella begins to use Rubens as her diplomat to conduct secret negotiations with the north "behind Spain's back."

Rubens begins the oil sketch of The Last Supper in this year. It is part of his ceiling designs for the new Jesuit Church in Antwerp, for which construction began in 1615. In 1718 the Jesuit church will be struck by lightning, and Rubens's ceiling paintings will be destroyed.

Rubens accepts a commission from James I, King of England, to paint decorations for the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace in London. These paintings are not completed until the early 1630s.


Rubens agrees to do a cycle of paintings for the Luxembourg Palace, the Paris residence of Marie de Médicis (1573-1642), Queen Mother of France. Rubens depicts the queen's life in an allegorical cycle.

In Paris, Rubens meets with Flemish tapestry weavers and agrees to provide designs in the form of oil sketches for twelve tapestries depicting the life of Constantine. The Labarum and Triumphant Entry of Constantine into Rome are two of these sketches.

Rubens is believed to have started painting the oil sketch St. Norbert Overcoming Tanchelm in this year. The sketch is for a sculpture by his friend and collaborator, Hans van Mildert (1588-1638), that will become one of the figures flanking Rubens's own altarpiece, the Adoration of the Magi of 1624, in the church of the abbey of St. Michael.

Rubens's wife Isabella Brant dies, probably of the plague. He is deeply saddened by her death.


It is believed that at this time Rubens begins the oil sketch The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse, a modello for the vast altarpiece that Rubens will execute for the high altar of the cathedral at Freising.

Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) becomes court painter to Philip IV. Rubens holds Velázquez in high regard.


England and Spain declare war. The English join an alliance with the Dutch Republic.


Rubens's collaborator Jan Bruegel the Elder dies.

It is believed that Rubens paints a bust-length, three-quarter portrait of The Emperor Julius Caesar in this year. The exact purpose of this portrait and other small sketches from the series is unknown.

Also in this year, Rubens begins the oil sketches Three Nymphs with a Cornucopia and The Three Graces. The Three Nymphs is the modello for a large painting in the Museo del Prado, entitled Ceres and Two Nymphs, which also depicts three nymphs with a cornucopia. No work based on this sketch of The Three Graces survives, and its final function is not known.

It is believed that in this year Rubens also paints The Duke of Buckingham as the modello for a final large painting owned by the earl of Jersey at Osterley Park, which will be destroyed by fire in 1949.


Rubens begins the designs for a series of tapestries devoted to the Triumph of the Eucharist for the convent church of the Discalzed Carmelite nuns in Madrid, commissioned by the Archduchess Isabella. This cycle of eleven tapestries is the largest ever designed by Rubens. The subjects include Old Testament prefigurations of the Eucharist, allegorical scenes of triumph, defenders of the faith, and the worship of the Eucharist. Veneration of the Eucharist has become popular at this time because it helps propagate the ideology of the Counter-Reformation.


Rubens embarks on a series of diplomatic missions trying to bring peace to the northern and southern Netherlands and to bring England over to the side of Spain.

Spain forms an alliance with France to strengthen the Catholic monarchy's fight against the French Protestants.


Rubens is sent by the Flemish viceroys to Spain. There, he fills several commissions for King Philip IV, a patron of the arts who welcomes Rubens and makes him Secretary of his Privy Council. Rubens paints an equestrian portrait of the king, among other portraits.

Rubens mentors Diego Velázquez. It is the first time the two artists meet in person, having previously communicated only in writing. While in Spain, Rubens makes a number of copies of Titian masterworks in King Philip's collection.

In 1621 Rubens was commissioned by Marie de Médicis to decorate two large galleries in the new Luxembourg Palace. Painted in 1628, The Reconciliation of King Henry III and Henry of Navarre is one of the nine sketches that survive from this impressive, politicized project.

Also around 1628, Rubens paints Two Prisoners. The function of this oil sketch is not known.


Rubens travels to England, where he is involved in negotiations for peace with France. In April, a peace treaty is signed between France and England. Rubens is knighted by King Charles I of England for carrying out a delicate diplomatic mission.


Rubens returns to Antwerp after thirteen months abroad working on painting commissions and diplomatic missions. After he returns, he fills many commissions for Hapsburg monarchs of Austria and Spain.

It is believed that Rubens began the oil sketch Studies for Figures in a Larder in this year. It is a preliminary design for figures in two paintings executed in collaboration with the animal and still-life painter Frans Snyders (1579-1657) in the 1630s: Kitchen Still Life with Maid and Child and Cook at a Kitchen Table with Dead Game.

Rubens marries Hélène Fourment (1614-1673), the daughter of a merchant. She is only sixteen at the time of her marriage to the fifty-three-year-old Rubens.

In England, Rubens assists with negotiations for a peace treaty between England and Spain.

Rubens's first child with Hélène, Clara Johanna, is born.


Galileo's book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems is published. Because the book supports Copernican theory, Galileo is put under house arrest for life.

Rubens is believed to have painted the oil sketch The Road to Calvary (Christ Carrying the Cross) in this year. Its lack of color and the fact that most figures are acting with their left hands seem to indicate that the sketch is intended as a model for a print. Indeed, Rubens's composition will be reproduced, with great fidelity, in an engraving by Paulus Pontius, dated 1632.

Around this time, Rubens paints the oil sketch Last Supper in preparation for an altarpiece for the chapel of the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament in the church of St. Rombout (Romuald) in Mechelen.

It is believed that in this year Rubens begins the oil sketch Two Figure Studies (Mercury and a Yeoman) as part of his designs for the decorations for the ceiling of the Whitehall Palace. He also creates Sketch for Portrait of a Family (Peter Paul Rubens and Hélène Fourment, with Nicolaas and Clara Johanna Rubens) around this time.


Rubens's son Frans is born.

The Infanta Isabella dies. After her death, Rubens no longer acts as a political diplomat.

Galileo Galilei is again forced by the Pope to recant his claim that the earth orbits the sun. (On October 31, 1992, the Vatican will admit that it was wrong.)

It is believed that around this time, Rubens completes Peace Embracing Plenty, an oil sketch used for the designs of the ceiling decorations in Whitehall in London.


Cardinal Richelieu of France intervenes in the great conflict in Europe by declaring war on the Hapsburgs in Spain.

Rubens purchases the grand castle Het Steen and assumes the title Lord of Steen.


Philip IV commissions Rubens to paint decorations for his new hunting lodge, the Torre de la Parada. Rubens begins to work on these in 1939 and they are completed by his students after his death.

In 1635 and 1636, Rubens completes a number of oil sketches for the hunting lodge project including Clytie Grieving, The Abduction of Dejanira by Nessus, and Nereid and Triton. In this year, Rubens also paints the oil sketch Aurora and Cephalus. This is one of the largest of all the oil sketches for the Torre de la Parada decorations.

Harvard College is founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Rubens is believed to have begun the oil sketch The Elevation of the Cross, which serves as the modello for Hans (Johannes) Witdoek's 1638 engraving.

Also around this time, Rubens paints the modello The Martyrdom of St. Paul for the high altar of the church of the Augustinian priory of Rood Klooster (also Rooklooster) near Brussels, of which Paul is the patron saint. It is believed that this is the only complete study for the larger final altarpiece.

Rubens's son Peter Paul is born.


French mathematician René Descartes publishes his Discourse on Method, in which he states that to solve any problem, it is helpful to divide the question into a set or series of smaller problems, and then to solve each one in turn. Catholic theologians place the Discourse on the Index of Forbidden Books.

One of the last commissions of Rubens's career is for eighteen paintings for the Bóveda del Palacio in Philip IV's royal palace in Madrid. There are seven surviving oil sketches of mythological and secular hunt scenes, including Bear Hunt, Diana and Nymphs Hunting Fallow Deer, and The Death of Silvia's Stag. The oil sketch Hercules Strangling the Nemean Lion is also believed to have been painted in 1639 and may have been part of this series.


Rubens falls ill with gout and both his hands become paralyzed. On May 27, he makes his will, and on May 30, Peter Paul Rubens dies.