From 4 October 2017 to 14 January 2018, the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris invites us to discover the works of Pierre Paul Rubens (1577-1640), a protean genius.
He succeeded in reaching the highest social rank for a painter in his time. His immense body of work addresses nearly all the subjects of painting. His portraits of princes are still not well known, even though they were essential to his career.
The exhibition will be shown at the Musée du Luxembourg, in the Médicis gallery, for which Rubens produced one of his key masterpieces. This palace is part of the Richelieu wing of the Musée du Louvre. The life of the monarchy and Rubens' career were intricately intertwined. Taking you through the courts of Europe, like a family album, the exhibition shows the effigies of Marie de Médicis and the monarchs of her time. Rubens made a number of portraits of the Habsburgs at the court of Mantua, where they all had a family link with Marie de Médicis, even before she became mother and stepmother to the kings of France, Spain and England.
Painter to the court
Painting the portrait of a monarch was the most prestigious commission a painter could receive at the time. It was also an opportunity to flatter the sensibility of the model. Although we know that Rubens received commissions from the kings, queens, princesses and princes of his time, there has never been an exhibition devoted entirely to them. Pierre Paul Rubens was a protean genius.
Rubens was born into a well-off family from Anvers and received a humanist education. His role as a page boy in early life taught him the manners and the ease that would prove useful later on, rubbing shoulders with some of the most powerful rulers of his time. He went to Italy to complete his training as a painter, inspired by Titian in particular, who had painted the famous portraits of Charles V and Philip II, and soon became one of the painters to the court of Gonzaga at Mantua.
His first portraits of princes
In 1609 he returned to Anvers to become painter to the court of Flanders. In this role, he produced the officialportraits of the Habsburg princes. His stay in Paris, to honour the commission of Marie de Médicis for the Palais du Luxembourg in 1621, was extended so that he could paint Louis XIII, the son of Marie de Médicis, and his wife Anne ofAustria, the sister of Philip IV, King of Spain. Philip IV then invited Rubens to Madrid to paint portraits of him and his family. In a Europe where few people travelled, it had become customary for painters to pass on messages, and Rubens went well beyond his duty in this regard. Because he had received an extended education, and he was a true courtier with an international reputation, he could talk to his distinguished models, delivering diplomatic proposals in the relative privacy of his painting sessions.
Genius of his time
Prince of painters and painter of princes, by the end of his life and his career, Rubens had become a trusted confidante of these prestigious models. He understood perfectly the protocols to be followed, the codes to be honoured (how much the model's features should be idealised, symbols of power and the importance of costume and decorum), struck the right balance between flamboyance and naturalism in his representations and gave his official effigies a unique personality. Each work had a different inspiration. He thus became the most important painter of his time, and princes took advantage of his talents. By way of comparison and to demonstrate his role and his originality, the exhibition presents some portraits of the same monarchs painted by his rivals, particularly Velázquez, Champaigne, Vouet and Van Dyck, his most gifted student, who became a portrait painter of great stature in London, inspired by the lessons of his master.