Story type: Essay
I was admitted to the Duke of Lerma’s presence, and took part in the embassy. The Duke exhibited great satisfaction at the excellence and number of the pictures, which surely have acquired a certain fair appearance of antiquity (by means of my retouching), in spite even of the damage they had undergone. They are held and accepted by the King and Queen as originals, without there being any doubt on their side, or assertion on ours, to make them believe them to be such.
—Letter From Rubens at Madrid, to Chieppo, Secretary of the Duke of Mantua
The father of Peter Paul Rubens was a lawyer, a man of varied attainments and marked personality. In statecraft he showed much skill, and by his ability in business management served William the Silent, Prince of Orange, in good stead.
But Jan Rubens had a bad habit of thinking for himself. The habit grew upon him until the whisper was passed from this one to that, that he was becoming decidedly atheistic.
Spain held a strong hand upon Antwerp, and the policy of Philip the Second was to crush opposition in the bud. Jan Rubens had criticized Spanish rule, and given it as his opinion that the Latin race would not always push its domination upon the people of the North.
At this time Spain was so strong that she deemed herself omnipotent, and was looking with lustful eyes towards England. Drake and Frobisher and Walter Raleigh were learning their lessons in seafaring; Elizabeth was Queen; while up at Warwickshire a barefoot boy named William Shakespeare was playing in the meadows, and romping in the lanes and alleys of Stratford.
All this was taking place at the time when Jan Rubens was doing a little thinking on his own account. On reading the history of Europe, Flanders seems to one to have been a battle-ground from the dawn of history up to the night of June Eighteenth, Eighteen Hundred Fifteen, with a few incidental skirmishes since, for it is difficult to stop short. And it surely was meet that Napoleon should have gone up there to receive his Waterloo, and charge his cavalry into a sunken roadway, making a bridge across with a mingled mass of men and horses; upon which site now is a huge mound thrown up by the English, surmounted by a gigantic bronze lion cast from the captured cannon of the French.
Napoleon belonged to the Latin race: he pushed his rule north into Flanders, and there his prowess ended–there at the same place where Spanish rule had been throttled and turned back upon itself. “Thus far, and no farther.” Jan Rubens was right. But he paid dearly for his prophecy.
When William the Silent was away on his many warfaring expeditions, the man who had charge of certain of his affairs was Jan Rubens. Naturally this brought Rubens into an acquaintanceship with the wife of the silent prince. Rubens was a handsome man, ready in speech, and of the kind that makes friends easily. And if the wife of the Prince of Orange liked the vivacious Rubens better than the silent warrior (who won his sobriquet, they do say, through density of emotion and lack of ideas), why, who can blame her!
But Rubens had a wife of his own, to whom he was fondly attached; and this wife was also the close and trusted friend of the woman whose husband was off to the wars. And yet when this dense and silent man came back from one of his expeditions, it was only publicly to affront and disgrace his wife, and to cast Jan Rubens into a dungeon. No doubt the Prince was jealous of the courtly Rubens–and the Iagos are a numerous tribe. But Othello’s limit had been reached. He damned the innocent woman to the lowest pit, and visited his wrath on the man.
Of course I know full well that all Northern Europe once rang with shrill gossip over the affair, and as usual the woman was declared the guilty party. Even yet, when topics for scandal in Belgium run short, this old tale is revived and gone over–sides being taken. I’ve gone over it, too, and although I may be in the minority, just as I possibly am as to the “guilt” of Eve, yet I stand firm on the side of the woman. I give the facts just as they appear, having canvassed the whole subject, possibly a little more than was good for me.
Republics may be ungrateful, but the favor of princes is fickle as the East Wind.
We make a fine hullabaloo nowadays because France or Russia occasionally tries and sentences a man without giving him an opportunity of defense; but in the Sixteenth Century the donjon-keeps of hundreds of castles in Europe were filled with prisoners whose offense consisted in being feared or disliked by some whimsical local ruler.
Jan Rubens was sent on an official errand to Dillenburg, and arriving there was seized and thrown into prison, without trial or the privilege of communicating with his friends.
Months of agonizing search on the part of his wife failed to find him, and the Prince only broke the silence long enough to usurp a woman’s privilege by telling a lie, and declaring he did not know where Rubens was, “but I believe he has committed suicide through remorse.”
The distracted wife made her way alone from prison to prison, and finally, by bribing an official, found her husband was in an underground cell in the fortress at Dillenburg. It was a year before she was allowed to communicate with or see him. But Maria Rubens was a true diplomat. You move a man not by going to him direct, but by finding out who it is that has a rope tied to his foot. She secured the help of the discarded wife of the Prince, and these two managed to interest a worthy bishop, who brought his influence to bear on Count John of Nassau. This man had jurisdiction of the district in which the fortress where Rubens was confined was located; and he agreed to release the prisoner on parole on condition that a deposit of six thousand thalers be left with him, and an agreement signed by the prisoner that he would give himself up when requested; and also, further, that he would acknowledge before witnesses that he was guilty of the charges made against him.
The latter clause was to justify the Prince of Orange in his actions toward him.
Rubens refused to plead guilty, even for the sake of sweet liberty, on account of the smirch to the name of the Princess.
But on the earnest request of both his wife and the “co-respondent,” he finally accepted the terms in the same manner that Galileo declared the earth stood still. Rubens got his liberty, was loyal to his parole, but John of Nassau kept the six thousand thalers for “expenses.”
So much for the honor of princes; but in passing it is worthy of recall that Jan Rubens pleaded guilty of disloyalty to his wife, on request of said wife, in order that he might enjoy the society of said wife–and cast a cloud on the good name of another woman on said woman’s request.
So here is a plot for a play: a tale of self-sacrifice and loyalty on the part of two women that puts to shame much small talk we hear from small men concerning the fickleness and selfishness of woman’s love. “Brief as woman’s love!” said Hamlet–but then, Hamlet was crazy.
Jan Rubens died in Cologne, March Eighteenth, Fifteen Hundred Eighty-seven, and lies buried in the Church of Saint Peter. Above the grave is a slab containing this inscription: “Sacred to the Memory of Jan Rubens, of Antwerp, who went into voluntary exile and retired with his family to Cologne, where he abode for nineteen years with his wife Maria, who was the mother of his seven children. With this his only wife Maria he lived happily for twenty-six years without any quarrel. This monument is erected by said Maria Pypelings Rubens to her sweetest and well-deserved husband.”
Of course, no one knew then that one of the seven–the youngest son of Jan and Maria–was to win deathless fame, or that might have been carved on the slab, too, even if something else had to be omitted.
But Maria need not have added that last clause, stating who it was that placed the tablet: as it stands we should all have known that it was she who dictated the inscription. Epitaphs are proverbially untruthful; hence arose the saying, “He lies like an epitaph.” The woman who can not evolve a good lie in defense of the man she loves is unworthy of the name of wife.
The lie is the weapon of defense that kind Providence provides for the protection of the oppressed. “Women are great liars,” said Mahomet; “Allah in his wisdom made them so.”
Hail, Maria Rubens! turned to dust these three hundred years, what star do you now inhabit? or does your avatar live somewhere here in this world? At the thought of your unselfish loyalty and precious fibbing, an army of valiant, ghostly knights will arise from their graves, and rusty swords leap from their scabbards if aught but good be said against thee.
“Ho, ho! and wasn’t your husband really guilty, and didn’t you know it all the time?” I’ll fling my glove full in the face of any man who dare ask you such a question.
Beloved and loving wife for six-and-twenty years, and mother of seven, looking the world squarely in the eye and telling a large and beautiful untruth, carving it in marble to protect your husband’s name, I kiss my hand to you!
* * * * *
In the doorpost of a queer little stone house in Cologne is carved an inscription to the effect that Peter Paul Rubens was born there on June Twenty-ninth, Fifteen Hundred Seventy-seven. It is probably true that the parents of Rubens lived there, but Peter Paul was born at Siegen, under the shadow of a prison from which his father was paroled.
After a few years the discipline relaxed, for there were new prisoners coming along, and Maria and Jan were given permission to move to Cologne.
Peter Paul was ten years of age when his father died. The next year the widow moved with her little brood back to Antwerp, back to the city from which her husband had been exiled just twenty years before. Five years previous the Prince of Orange, who had exiled her husband, was himself sent on a journey, via the dagger of an assassin. As the chief enemy of Jan Rubens was dead, it was the hope of the widow to recover their property that had been confiscated.
Maria Rubens was a good Catholic; and she succeeded in making the authorities believe that her husband had been, too, for the home that Royalty had confiscated was returned to her.
The mother of Peter Paul loved the dim twilight mysteries of the Church, and accepted every dogma and edict as the literal word of God. It is easier and certainly safer to leave such matters to the specialists.
She was a born diplomat. She recognized the power of the Church and knew that to win one must go with the current, not against it. To have doubts, when the Church is willing to bear the whole burden, she thought very foolish. Had she been a man she would have been a leader among the Jesuits. The folly of opposition had been shown her most vividly in her husband’s career. What could he not have been had he been wise and patient and ta’en the tide at its flood! And this was the spirit that she inculcated in the minds of her children.
Little Peter Paul was a handsome lad–handsome as his father–with big, dark brown eyes and clustering curls. He was bright, intelligent, and blessed with a cheerful, obliging disposition. He came into the world a welcome child, carrying the beauty of the morning in his face, and form, and spirit.
No wonder is it that the Countess de Lalaing desired the boy for a page as soon as she saw him. His mother embraced the opportunity to let her favorite child see court life, and so at the early age of twelve, at a plunge, he began that career in polite diplomacy that was to continue for half a century.
The Countess called herself his “other mother,” and lavished upon him all the attention that a childless woman had to bestow. The mornings were sacred to his lessons, which were looked after by a Jesuit priest; and in the afternoon, another priest came to give the ladies lessons in the languages, and at these circles young Peter Paul was always present as one of the class.
Indeed, the earliest accomplishment of Peter Paul was his polyglot ability. When he arrived at Antwerp, a mere child, he spoke German, Flemish and French.
Such a favorite did little Peter Paul become with his “other mother,” and her ladies of the court, that his sure-enough mother grew a bit jealous, and feared they would make a hothouse plant of her boy, and so she took him away.
The question was, for what profession should he be educated? That he should serve the Church and State was already a settled fact in the mother’s mind: to get on in the world you must cultivate and wisely serve those who are in power–that is, those who have power to bestow. Priests were plentiful as blackberries, and politicians were on every corner, and many of the priests and officeseekers had no special talent to recommend them. They were simply timeservers. Maria knew this: To get on you must have several talents, otherwise people will tire of you.
In Cologne, Maria Rubens had met returned pilgrims from Rome and they had told her of that trinity of giants, Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo; and how these men had been the peers of prince and pope, because they had the ability to execute marvelous works of beauty.
This extraordinary talent called attention to themselves, so they were summoned out of the crowd and became the companions and friends of the greatest names of their time.
And then, how better can one glorify his Maker than by covering the sacred walls of temples with rich ornament!
The boy entered into the project, and the mother’s ambition that he should retrieve his father’s fortune fired his heart. Thus does the failure in life of a parent often give incentive to the genius of a son.
Tobias Verhaecht was the man who taught Rubens the elements of drawing, and inculcated in him that love of Nature which was to be his lifelong heritage. The word “landscape” is Flemish, and it was the Dutch who carried the term and the art into England. Verhaecht was among the very first of landscape-painters. He was a specialist: he could draw trees and clouds, and a winding river, but could not portray faces. And so he used to call in a worthy portrait-painter, by the name of Franck, to assist him whenever he had a canvas on the easel that demanded the human form. Then when Franck wanted background and perspective, Verhaecht would go over with a brush and a few pots of paint and help him out.
At fifteen, the keen, intuitive mind of Rubens had fathomed the talents of those two worthies, Verhaecht and Franck. His mind was essentially feminine: he absorbed ideas in the mass. Soon he prided himself on being able to paint alone as good a picture as the two collaborators could together. Yet he was too wise to affront them by the boast. The bent of his talent he thought was toward historical painting; and more than this, he knew that only epic art would open the churches for a painter. And so he next became a pupil under Adam van Noort. This man was a rugged old character, who worked out things in his own way and pushed the standard of painting full ten points to the front. His work shows a marked advance over that of his contemporaries and over the race of painters that preceded him. Every great artist is the lingering representative of an age that is dead, or else he is the prophet and forerunner of a golden age to come.
When I visited the Church of Saint Jaques in Antwerp, where Rubens lies buried, the good old priest who acted as guide called my attention to a picture by Van Noort, showing Peter finding the money in the mouth of the fish. “A close study of that picture will reveal to you the germ of the Rubens touch,” said the priest, and he was surely right: its boldness of drawing, the strong, bright colors and the dexterity in handling all say, “Rubens.” Rubens builded on the work of Van Noort.
Twenty years after Rubens had left the studio of Van Noort he paid tribute to his old master by saying, “Had Van Noort visited Italy and caught the spirit of the classicists, his name would stand first among Flemish artists.”
Rubens worked four years with Van Noort and then entered the studio of Otto van Veen. This man was not a better painter than Van Noort, but he occupied a much higher social position, and Peter Paul was intent on advancing his skirmish-line. He never lost ground. Van Veen was Court Painter, and on friendly terms with the Archduke Albert, and Isabella, his wife, daughter of Philip the Second, King of Spain.
Van Veen took very few pupils–only those who had the ability to aid him in completing his designs. To have worked with this master was an introduction at once into the charmed circle of royalty.
Rubens was in no haste to branch out on his own account: he was quite content to know that he was gaining ground, making head upon the whole. He won the confidence of Van Veen at once by his skill, his cheerful presence, and ability to further the interests of his master and patrons. In Fifteen Hundred Ninety-nine, when Rubens was twenty-two, he was enrolled as a free master at the Guild of Saint Luke on the nomination of Van Veen, who also about this time introduced the young artist to Albert and Isabella.
But the best service that Van Veen did for Rubens was in taking him into his home and giving him free access to the finest collection of Italian art in the Netherlands. These things filled the heart of Rubens with a desire to visit Italy, and there to dive deeply into the art spirit of that land from which all our art has sprung.
To go abroad then and gain access to the art treasures of the world was not a mere matter of asking for a passport, handing out a visiting-card, and paying your way.
Young men who wished to go abroad to study were required to pass a stiff examination. If it was believed that they could not represent their own country with honor, their passports were withheld. And to travel without a passport was to run the risk of being arrested as an absconder.
But Rubens’ place in society was already secure. Instead of applying for his passports personally and undergoing the usual catechization, his desires were explained to Van Veen, and all technicalities were waived, as they always are when you strike the right man. Not only were the passports forthcoming, but Albert and Isabella wrote a personal note to Viccuzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua, commending the young painter to the Duke’s good offices.
Van Veen further explained to Rubens that to know the Duke of Mantua might mean either humiliation or crowning success. To attain the latter through the Duke of Mantua, it was necessary to make a good impression on Annibale Chieppo, the Duke’s Minister of State. Chieppo had the keeping of the ducal conscience as well as the key to the strong-box.
The Duke of Mantua was one of those strange loaded dice that Fate occasionally flings upon this checkerboard of time: one of those characters whose feverish faculties border on madness, yet who do the world great good by breaking up its balances, preventing social ankylosis, and eventually forcing upon mankind a new deal. But in the train of these vagrant stars famine and pestilence follow.
The Duke of Mantua was brother in spirit to the man who made Versailles–and making Versailles undid France.
Versailles is a dream: no language that the most enthusiastic lovers of the beautiful may utter, can exaggerate the wonders of those acres of palaces and miles of gardens. The magnificence of the place makes the ready writer put up his pencil, and go away whipped, subdued and crestfallen to think that here are creations that no one pen can even catalog. Louis the Grand, we are told, had thirty-six thousand men and six thousand horses at work here at one time. No wonder Madame De Maintenon was oppressed by the treasures that were beyond the capacity of man to contemplate; and so off in the woods was built that lover’s retreat, “The Trianon.” And out there today, hidden in the forest, we behold the second Trianon, built by Marie Antoinette, and we also see those straw-thatched huts where the ladies of her Court played at peasant life.
Louis the Fourteenth builded so well that he discouraged his successor from doing anything but play keep-house, and so extensively that France was rent in twain, and so mightily that even Napoleon Bonaparte was staggered at the thought of maintaining Versailles.
“It’s too much for any man to enjoy–I give it up!” said the Little Man, perplexed, and ordered every door locked and every window tightly shuttered. Then he placed a thousand men to guard the place and went about his business.
But today Versailles belongs to the people of France; more, it belongs to the people of earth: all is free and you may carry away all the beauty of the place that your soul can absorb.
Now, who shall say that Louis the Fourteenth has not enriched the world?
The Duke of Mantua was sumptuous in his tastes, liberal, chivalrous, voluptuous, extravagant. At the same time he had a cultivated mind, an eye for proportion, and an ear for harmony. He was even pious at times, and like all debauchees had periods of asceticism. He was much given to gallantry, and his pension-list of beautiful women was not small. He was a poet and wrote some very good sonnets; he was a composer who sang, from his own compositions, after the wine had gone round; he was an orator who committed to memory and made his own the speeches that his secretary wrote.
He traveled much, and in great state, with a retinue of servants, armed guards, outriders and guides. Wherever he went he summoned the local poet, or painter, or musician, and made a speech to him, showing that he was familiar with his work by humming a tune or quoting a stanza. Then he put a chain of gold around the poor embarrassed fellow’s neck, and a purse in his hands, and the people cheered.
When he visited a town, cavalcades met him afar out, and as he approached, little girls in white and boys dressed in velvet ran before and strewed flowers in front of his carriage.
Oh, the Duke of Mantua was a great man!
In his retinue was a troop of comedians, a court fool, two dwarfs for luck, seven cooks, three alchemists and an astrologer. Like the old woman who lived in a shoe, he had so many children he didn’t know what to do. One of his sons married a princess of the House of Saxony, another son was a cardinal, and a daughter married into the House of Lorraine. He had alliances and close relations with every reigning family of Europe. The sister of his wife, Marie de Medici, became “King of France,” as Talleyrand avers, and had a mad, glad, sad, bad, jolly time of it.
Wherever the Duke of Mantua went, there too went Annibale Chieppo, the Minister of State. This man had a calm eye, a quiet pulse, and could locate any man or woman in his numerous retinue at any hour of the day or night. He was a diplomat, a soldier, a financier.
You could not reach the Duke until you had got past Chieppo.
And the Duke of Mantua had much commonsense–for in spite of envy and calumny and threat he never lost faith in Annibale Chieppo.
No success in life is possible without a capable first mate. Chieppo was king of first mates.
He was subtle as Richelieu and as wise as Wolsey.
When Peter Paul Rubens, aged twenty-three, arrived at Venice, the Duke of Mantua and his train were there. Rubens presented his credentials to Chieppo, and the Minister of State read them, looked upon the handsome person of the young man, proved for himself he had decided talent as a painter, put him through a civil-service examination–and took him into favor. Such a young man as this, so bright, so courtly, so talented, must be secured. He would give the entire Court a new thrill.
“Tomorrow,” said the Minister of State, “tomorrow you shall be received by the Duke of Mantua and his court!”
* * * * *
The ducal party remained at Venice for several weeks, and when it returned to Mantua, Rubens went along quite as a matter of course. From letters that he wrote to his brother Philip, as well as from many other sources, we know that the art collection belonging to the Duke of Mantua was very rich. It included works by the Bellinis, Correggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, Tintoretto, Titian, Paoli Veronese, and various others whose names have faded away like their colors.
Rubens had long been accustomed to the ways of polite society. The magnificence of his manner, and the fine egotism he showed in his work, captivated the Court. The Duke was proud of his ward and paraded him before his artistic friends as the coming man, incidentally explaining that it was the Duke of Mantua who had made him and not he himself.
It was then the custom of those who owned masterpieces to have copies made and present them to various other lovers of the beautiful. If an honored guest was looking through your gallery, and expressed great pleasure in a certain canvas, the correct thing was to say, “I’ll have my best painter make a copy of it, and send it to you”–and a memorandum was made on an ivory tablet. This gracious custom seems to have come down from the time when the owners of precious books constantly employed scribes and expert illuminators in making copies for distribution. The work done in the scriptoriums of the monasteries, we know, was sent away as presents, or in exchange for other volumes.
Rubens set diligently to work copying in the galleries of Mantua; and whether the Duke was happier because he had discovered Rubens than Rubens was because he had found the Duke, we do not know. Anyway, all that the young painter had hoped and prayed for had been sent him.
Here was work from the very hands of the masters he had long worshiped from afar. His ambition was high and his strong animal spirits and tireless energy were a surprise to the easy-going Italians. The galleries were his without let or hindrance, save that he allow the ladies of the Court to come every afternoon and watch him work. This probably did not disturb him; but we find the experienced Duke giving the young Fleming some good advice, thus: “You must admire all these ladies in equal portion. Should you show favoritism for one, the rest will turn upon you; and to marry any one of them would be fatal to your art.”
Rubens wrote the advice home to his mother, and the good mother viseed it and sent it back.
After six months of diligent work at Mantua we find Rubens starting for Rome with letters from the Duke to Cardinal Montalto, highly recommending him to the good graces of the Cardinal, and requesting, “that you will be graciously so good as to allow our Fleming to execute and make copies for us of such paintings as he may deem worthy.”
Cardinal Montalto was a nephew of Pope Sixtus, and the strongest man, save the Pope, in Rome. He had immense wealth, great learning, and rare good sense in matters of art. He was a close friend of the Duke of Mantua; and to come into personal relations with such a man was a piece of rare good fortune for any man. The art world of Rome now belonged to Rubens–all doors opened at his touch. “Our Fleming” knew the value of his privileges. “If I do not succeed,” he writes to his mother, “it will be because I have not improved my opportunities.” The word fail was not in his lexicon. His industry never relaxed. In Walpole’s “Anecdotes of Painting,” an account is given of a sketchbook compiled by Rubens at this time. The original was in the possession of Maurice Johnson, of Spalding, England, in Eighteen Hundred Forty-five, at which time it was exhibited in London and attracted much attention.
I have seen a copy of the book with its hundred or more sketches of the very figures that we now see and admire in the Uffizi and Pitti galleries and in the Vatican. Eight generations of men have come and gone since Rubens sketched from the Old Masters, but there today stand the chiseled shapes, which were then centuries old, and there today are the “Titians” and the “Raphaellos” just as the exuberant Fleming saw them. Surely this must show us how short are the days of man! “Open then the door; you know how little while we have to stay!”
The two figures that seemed to impress Rubens most, as shown in the sketchbook, are the Farnese “Hercules” and Michelangelo’s “David.” He shows the foot of the “Hercules,” and the hand of the “David,” and gives front, back and side views with comments and criticisms. Then after a few pages have been covered by other matter he goes back again to the “Hercules”–the subject fascinates him.
When we view “The Crucifixion,” in the Cathedral at Antwerp, we conclude that he admired the “Hercules” not wisely but too well, for the muscles stand out on all the figures, even of the Savior, in pure Farnese style. Two years after that picture was painted, he did his masterpiece, “The Descent From the Cross,” and we behold with relief the change that had come over the spirit of his dreams. Mere pride in performing a difficult feat had given place to a higher motive. There is no reason to suppose that the Apostles had trained to perform the twelve labors of Hercules, or that the two Marys were Amazons. But the burly Roman forms went back to Flanders, and for many years staid citizens were slipped into classic attitudes to do duty as Disciples, Elders, Angels–all with swelling biceps, knotted muscles, and necks like the Emperor Vespasian.
The Mantuan Envoy at Rome had private orders from Chieppo to see that the Fleming was well treated. The Envoy was further requested to report to the Secretary how the painter spent his time, and also how he was regarded by Cardinal Montalto. Thus we see the wily Secretary set one servant watching another, and kept in close touch with all.
The reports, however, all confirmed the Secretary in his belief that the Fleming was a genius, and, moreover, worthy of all the encouragement that was bestowed upon him. The Secretary sent funds from time to time to the painter, with gentle hints that he should pay due attention to his behavior, and also to his raiment, for the apparel oft doth proclaim the man.
The Duke of Mantua seems to have regarded Rubens as his own private property, and Rubens had too much sense to do anything by word or deed that might displease his patron.
When he had gotten all that Italy could give, or more properly all he could absorb, his intent was to follow his heart and go straight back to Flanders.
Three years had passed since Rubens had arrived in Venice–years of profit to both spirit and purse. He had painted pictures that placed him in the rank of acknowledged artists, and the Duke of Mantua had dropped all patronizing airs. With the ducal party Rubens had visited Verona, Florence, Pisa and Padua. His fame was more than local. The painter hinted to Chieppo that he would like to return to Antwerp, but the Secretary objected–he had important work for him.
* * * * *
Rubens was from Flanders, and Flanders was a Spanish possession: then the Fleming knew the daughter of the King of Spain. No man was so well fitted to go on a delicate diplomatic mission to Spain as the Flemish painter. “You are my heart’s jewel,” said the Duke of Mantua to the Prime Minister, when the Minister suggested it.
The Duke wished private information as to certain things Spanish, and was also preparing the way to ask for sundry favors. The Court at Madrid was artistic in instinct; so was the Mantuan Court. To recognize the esthetic side of your friend’s nature, when your friend is secretly not quite sure but that he is more worldly than spiritual, is a stroke of diplomacy. Spain was not really artistic, but there were stirrings being felt, and Velasquez and Murillo were soon to appear.
The Duke of Mantua wished to present the King of Spain with certain pictures; his mind was filled with a lively sense of anticipation of future favors to be received–which feeling we are told is gratitude. The entire ceremony must be carried out appropriately–the poetic unities being fully preserved. Therefore a skilful painter must be sent with the pictures, in order to see that they were safely transported, properly unpacked, and rightly hung.
Instructions were given to Peter Paul Rubens, the artistic ambassador, at great length, as to how he should proceed. He was to make himself agreeable to the King, and to one greater than the King–the man behind the throne–the Duke of Lerma; and to several fair ladies as well.
The pictures were copies of the masters–“Titians,” “Raphaellos,” “Tintorettos” and “Leonardos.” They were copied with great fidelity, even to the signature and private marks of the original artist. In fact, so well was the work done that if the recipient inclined to accept them as originals, his mind must not be disabused. Further, the envoy was not supposed to know whether they were originals or not (even though he had painted them), and if worse came to worst he must say, “Well, surely they are just as good as the originals, if not better.”
Presents were taken for a dozen or more persons. Those who were not so very artistic were to have gifts of guns, swords and precious stones. The ambassador was to travel in a new carriage, drawn by six horses and followed by wagons carrying the art treasures. All this so as to make the right impression and prove to Madrid that Mantua was both rich and generous. And as a capsheaf to it all, the painter must choose an opportune moment and present his beautiful carriage and horses to the King, for the belief was rife that the King of Spain was really more horsey than artistic.
The pictures were selected with great care, and the finest horses to be found were secured, regardless of cost. Several weeks were consumed in preparations, and at last the cavalcade started away, with Rubens in the carriage and eleven velvet suits in his chest, as he himself has told us. It was a long, hard journey to Madrid. There were encounters with rapacious landlords, and hairbreadth escapes in the imminent deadly custom-house. But in a month the chromatic diplomat arrived and entered Madrid at the head of his company, wearing one of the velvet suits, and riding a milk-white charger.
Rubens followed orders and wrote Signor Chieppo at great length, giving a minute account of every incident and detail of the journey and of his reception at Madrid. While at the Court he kept a daily record of happenings, which was also forwarded to the Secretary.
These many letters have recently been given to the public. They are in Italian, with a sprinkling here and there of good honest Dutch. All is most sincere, grave and explicit. Rubens deserved great credit for all these letters, for surely they were written with sweat and lamp-smoke. The work of the toiler is over all, but we must remember that at that time he had been studying Italian only about a year.
The literary style of Rubens was Johnsonese all his life, and he made his meaning plain only by repetitions and many rhetorical flounderings. Like the average sixteen-year-old boy who sits himself down and takes his pen in hand, all his sprightliness of imagination vanished at sight of an ink-bottle. With a brush his feelings were fluid, and in a company grace dwelt upon his lips; but when asked to write it out he gripped the pen as though it were a crowbar instead of a crow’s-quill.
But Chieppo received his reports; and we know the embassy was a success–a great success. The debonair Fleming surprised the King by saying, “Your Majesty, it is like this”–and then with a few bold strokes drew a picture.
He modestly explained that he was not much of a painter–“merely used a brush for his own amusement”–and then made a portrait for the Minister of State that exaggerated all of that man’s good points, and ignored all his failings. There was a cast in the Minister’s eye, but Rubens waived it. The Minister was delighted, and so was the King. He then made a portrait of the King that was as flattering as portraits should be that are painted for monarchs.
Among his other accomplishments the Fleming was a skilful horseman; he rode with such grace and dash that the King took him on his drives, Rubens riding by the side of the carriage, gaily conversing as they rode.
And so with the aid of his many talents he won the confidence of the King and Court and was initiated into the inner life of Spanish royalty in a way that Iberta, the Mantuan Resident, never had been. The King liked Rubens, and so did the Man behind the Throne.
Mortals do not merely like each other because they like each other; such a bond is tenuous as a spider’s thread. I love you because you love the things that I love. One woman won my heart by her subtle appreciation of “The Dipsy Chanty.” Men meet on a horse basis, a book basis, a religious basis, or some other mutual leaning; sometimes we find them uniting on a mutual dislike for something. For instance, I have a friend to whom I am bound by the tie of oneness because we dislike olives, and have a mutual indifference to the pretended claims of the unpronounceable Pole who wrote “Quo Vadis.” The discovery was accidentally made in a hotel dining-room: we clasped hands across the board, and since then have been as brothers.
The more points at which you touch humanity the more friends you have–the greater your influence. Rubens was an artist, a horseman, a musician, a politician and a gourmet. When conceptions in the kitchen were vague, he would send for the cook and explain to him how to do it. He possessed a most discriminating palate and a fine appreciation of things drinkable. These accomplishments secured him a well-defined case of gout while yet a young man. He taught the Spanish Court how to smoke, having himself been initiated by an Englishman, who was a companion of Sir Walter Raleigh, and showed them how to roll a cigarette while engaged in ardent conversation. And the Spaniards have not yet lost the art, for once in Cadiz I saw a horse running away, and the driver rolled and lighted a cigarette before trying to stop the mad flight of the frantic brute.
In the Royal Gallery at Madrid are several large paintings by Rubens that were doubtless done at this time. They are religious subjects; but worked in, after the manner of a true diplomat, are various portraits of brave men and handsome women. To pose a worthy senator as Saint Paul, and a dashing lady of the Court as the Holy Virgin, was most gratifying to the phrenological development of approbativeness of the said senator and lady. Then, as the painter had pictured one, he must do as much for others, so there could be no accusation of favoritism.
Thus the months passed rapidly. The Duke of Lerma writes to Chieppo, “We desire your gracious permission to keep the Fleming another month, as very special portraits are required from his brush.”
The extra month extended itself to three; and when at last Rubens started back for Mantua it was after a full year’s absence.
The embassy was a most complete success. The diplomat well masked his true errand with the artist’s garb: and who of all men was ever so well fitted by Nature to play the part as Rubens?
Yet he came near overdoing the part at least once. It was in this wise: he really was not sure that the honors paid him were on account of his being a painter or a courtier. But like comedians who think their forte is tragedy, so the part of courtier was more pleasing to Rubens than that of painter, because it was more difficult. He painted with such ease that he set small store on the talent: it was only a makeshift for advancement.
Don John, Duke of Braganza, afterward King of Portugal, was a lover of art, and desired to make the acquaintance of the painter. So he wrote to Rubens at Madrid, inviting him to Villa Vitiosa, his place of residence.
Rubens knew how the Duke of Mantua did these things–he decided to follow suit.
With a numerous train, made up from the fringe of the Madrid Court, with hired horsemen going before, and many servants behind, the retinue started away. Coming within five miles of the villa of Don John, word was sent that Rubens and his retinue awaited his embassy.
Now Don John was a sure-enough duke and could muster quite a retinue of his own on occasion, yet he had small taste for tinsel parades. Men who have a real good bank-balance do not have to wear fashionable clothes. Don John was a plain, blunt man who liked books and pictures. He wanted to see the painter, not a courtier: and when he heard of the style in which the artist was coming, he just put a boy on a donkey and sent word out that he was not at home. And further, to show the proud painter his place, he sent along a small purse of silver to pay the artist for the trouble to which he had been. The rebuke was so delicate that it was altogether lost on Rubens–he was simply enraged.
* * * * *
In all, Rubens spent eight years in the service of the Duke of Mantua. He had visited the chief cities of Italy, and was familiar with all the art of the golden ages that had gone before. When he left Italy he had to take advantage of the fact that the Duke was in France, for every time before, when he had suggested going, he was questioned thus: “Why, have you not all you wish? What more can be done for you? Name your desire and you shall have it.”
But Rubens wanted home: Antwerp, his mother, brothers, sister, the broad River Scheldt, and the good old Flemish tongue.
Soon after arriving in Antwerp he was named as Court Painter by Albert and Isabella. Thus he was the successor of his old master, Van Veen.
He was now aged thirty-two, in possession of an income from the State, and a fame and name to be envied. He was rich in money, jewels and art treasures brought from Italy, for he had the thrifty instincts of a true Dutchman.
And it was a gala day for all Antwerp when the bells rang and the great organ in the Cathedral played the wedding-march when Peter Paul Rubens and Isabella Brandt were married, on the Thirteenth of October, Sixteen Hundred Nine. Never was there a happier mating.
That fine picture at Munich of Rubens and his wife tells of the sweet comradeship that was to be theirs for many years. He opened a school, and pupils flocked to him from all Europe; commissions for work came and orders for altar-pieces from various churches.
An order was issued by the Archduke that he should not leave Holland, and a copy of the order was sent to the Duke of Mantua, to shut off his importunities.
Among the pupils of Rubens we find the name of Jordaens (whom he had first known in Italy), De Crayer, Anthony Van Dyck, Franz Snyder and many others who achieved distinction. Rubens was a positive leader; so animated was his manner that his ambition was infectious. All his young men painted just as he did. His will was theirs. From now on, out of the thousands of pictures signed “P. P. Rubens,” we can not pick out a single picture and say, “Rubens did this.” He drew outlines and added the finishing touches; and surely would not have signed a canvas of which he did not approve. In his great studio at Antwerp, at various times, fully a hundred men worked to produce the pictures we call “Rubens.”
Those glowing canvases in the “Rubens Gallery” of the Louvre, showing the history and apotheosis of Marie de Medici, were painted at Antwerp. The joyous, exuberant touch of Rubens is over all, even though the work was done by ‘prentice hands.
Peaceful lives make dull biographies, and in prosperity is small romance.
We may search long before finding a life so full to overflowing of material good things as that of Rubens. All he touched turned to gold. From the time he returned to Antwerp in Sixteen Hundred Eight to his death in Sixteen Hundred Forty, his life-journey was one grand triumphal march. His many diplomatic missions were simply repetitions of his first Spanish embassy, with the Don John incident left out, for Don John seems to have been the only man who was not at home to the gracious Rubens.
Mr. Ruskin has said: “Rubens was a great painter, but he lacked that last undefinable something which makes heart speak to heart. You admire, but you never adore. No real sorrow ever entered his life.”
Perhaps we get a valuable clue in that last line. Great art is born of feeling, and the heart of Rubens was never touched by tragedy, nor the rocky fastnesses of his tears broken in upon by grief. In many ways his was the spirit of a child: he had troubles, but not sufficient to prevent refreshing sleep, and when he awoke in the morning the trials of yesterday were gone.
Even when the helpful, faithful and loving Isabella Brandt was taken away from him by death, there soon came other joys to take the place of those that were lost.
We have full fifty pictures of his second wife: she looks down at us–smiling, buxom, content–from every gallery-wall in Europe. Rubens was fifty-three and she was sixteen when they were married; and were it not for a twinge of gout now and then, he would have been as young as she.
When Rubens went to England on “an artistic commission,” we see that he captured Charles the First just as he captured the court of Spain. He painted five portraits of the King that we can trace. The mild-mannered Charles was greatly pleased with the fine portrait of himself bestriding the prancing cream-colored charger.
Several notable artists, Sir Joshua Reynolds among them, have complimented the picture by taking the horse, background and pose, and placing another man in the saddle–or more properly, taking off the head of Charles the First and putting on the head of any bold patron who would furnish the price. In looking through the galleries of Europe, keep your eye out for equestrian portraits, and you will be surprised to see on your tab, when you have made the rounds, how many painters have borrowed that long-maned, yellow horse that still rears in the National Gallery in London, smelling the battle afar off–as Charles himself preferred to smell it.
Rubens had a good time in England, although his patience was severely tried by being kept at painting for months, awaiting an opportune time to give King Charles some good advice on matters political.
English ways were very different from those of the Continent, but Rubens soon spoke the language with fluency, even if not with precision.
Rubens spoke seven languages, and to speak seven languages is to speak no one well. On this point we have a little comment from high authority. Said Charles the First, writing to Buckingham, “The Fleming painter prides himself on being able to pass for an Englishman, but his English is so larded with French, Dutch and Italian that we think he must have been employed on the Tower of Babel.”
While painting the ceiling of the banqueting-room at Whitehall (where a Dutchman was later to be crowned King of England), he discussed politics with the Duke of Buckingham and the King, from the scaffold. Some years after we find Buckingham visiting Rubens at his home in Antwerp, dickering for his fine collection of curios and paintings.
The Duke afterwards bought the collection and paid Rubens ten thousand pounds in gold for it.
Every one complimented Rubens on his shrewdness in getting so much money for the wares, and Rubens gave a banquet to his friends in token of the great sale to the Britisher. It was a lot of money, to be sure, but the Englishman realized the worth of the collection better than did Rubens. We have a catalog of the collection. It includes nineteen Titians, thirteen Paul Veroneses, seventeen Tintorettos, three Leonardos, three Raphaels and thirteen pictures by Rubens himself.
A single one of the Titians, if sold at auction today, would bring more than the Duke paid for the entire collection.
James McNeil Whistler has said, “There may be a doubt about Rubens having been a Great Artist; but he surely was an Industrious Person.”
There is barely enough truth in Mr. Whistler’s remark, taken with its dash of wit, to save it; but Philip Gilbert Hamerton’s sober estimate is of more value: “The influence of Rubens for good can not be overestimated. He gave inspiration to all he met, and his example of industry, vivid imagination, good-cheer and good taste have had an incalculable influence on art. We have more canvases from his hand than from the hand of any other master. And these pictures are a quarry to which every artist of today, consciously or unconsciously, is indebted.”