My talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size... has ever surpassed my courage.
Peter Paul RubensPeter Paul Rubens Self-Portrait
I think I was in about 100 pages and thought to myself is Peter Paul Rubens ever going to make an appearance in this book. Oppenheimer starts out giving the reader a pretty good dissertation on the Netherlands situation with Spain, the inquisition, and an overview of the turbulent times that the Rubens family had to navigate to survive.
It is amazing to me that his father, Jan Rubens, lived long enough to provide the necessary sperm donation that brought Peter Paul Rubens into existence. His father, a lawyer, had an affair with Anna of Saxony who was married to King William the Silent. Anna of Saxony
Rubens fathered a child with the Queen which left no doubt about the existence of infidelity.
Yes, pretty spicy stuff.
Jan was thrown in prison. Anna was walled up in a Nunnery with only a slot left open to slide food to her. By some miracle, probably having to do with the fact that William was relieved to have a reason to part ways with the problematic Queen, the senior Rubens was not executed. He was allowed, after a bout of torture to illicit a confession and a few years in prison, to return to his family. He was forced to live on the estates of William or his brother allegedly so they could keep an eye on him. Later after Anna died the Royals reversed their decision and told Rubens he could live anywhere, but on the estates of the two brothers. For many years there after the Royals kept the sword of vengeance dangling over Ruben's head forcing him to provide them with free legal service to retain his freedom. The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus by Peter Paul Rubens
Oppenheimer is a talented writer and I really started to appreciate his writing after I settled into the book and realized he would get to Peter Paul Rubens eventually. The opulent flesh on display in most of Ruben's paintings has always held me in awe. These "Rubenesque" women with saucy looks and round bottoms made me feel, as a college student, overwhelmed at the thought of attempting to court one of these goddesses. The reed thin young women walking around campus at the time seemed anemic and hardly intimidated after spending an hour in art history class gazing at frame after frame of Ruben's monolithic women.
Rubens was pretty much Rubens from the beginning. He didn't have a progression of finding his style. Even his early sketches have a decidedly Peter Paul Ruben's style. He worked for powerful patrons and painted so quickly that he was always taking on other commissions. Everywhere he traveled he would take on extra work and as a result of his work ethic became a very wealthy man. His second wife Helene Fourment figured prominently in many of his paintings. In the painting Garden of Love Rubens paints three versions of her. He does this again in The Judgement of Paris painting her as all three goddesses. Helene was only 16 years old to Rubens 53 when he began wooing her. Part of the negotiations with her family was that Helene would need to be comfortable posing for him and having her personage put on display before the world. One of the more revealing pictures of Helene was Het Pelsken which showed Helene returning from her bath, breasts uncovered, pudgy knees revealed, and the rest of her draped in a fur wrap. Rubens was not afraid to reveal his desire for his young wife to the admiring hoards of the art appreciating public.
This was a wonderful biography possibly one of the best biographies I've ever read. I certainly will look on any Ruben's painting, that I'm fortunate enough to see, with greater appreciation.