(b Siegen, Westphalia, 28 June 1577; d Antwerp, 30 May 1640).
Flemish painter, draughtsman, designer, and diplomat, the greatest and most influential figure in Baroque art in northern Europe. He was born in Germany, the son of a scholarly lawyer from Antwerp who left the city to escape religious persecution (he had Protestant sympathies). In 1587, soon after his father's death, he returned to Antwerp with his mother; he had been baptized a Calvinist in Germany, but he became a devout Catholic. From about 1590 he studied successively with three fairly undistinguished masters: Tobias Verhaecht (1561–1631), who was a distant relative, Adam van Noort (1562–1641), and Otto van Veen. The first two could teach him no more than the local tradition, but van Veen was a man of some culture, who had spent several years in Rome, and he no doubt inspired his pupil with a desire to visit Italy. Rubens became a master in the Antwerp painters' guild in 1598, and after working with van Veen for two more years he set out for Italy in 1600. Very little of his early work survives, and his style was largely formed in Italy, where he was based until 1608. Soon after his arrival he began working for Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, visiting most of the principal art centres of Italy to make copies for the ducal collection (he also went to Spain, 1603–4, when he accompanied gifts from Vincenzo to Philip III). The most significant parts of his stay in Italy were spent in Genoa (his longest visit was in 1606) and above all Rome (where he was mainly based in 1601–2 and 1605–8). In Genoa he painted some stately aristocratic portraits (Marchesa Brigida Spinola-Doria, 1606, NG, Washington) that inspired van Dyck when he worked in the city, and in Rome he absorbed the lessons of the antique, the great masters of the Renaissance, and Annibale Carracci, basing his dignified and powerful style on these sources, but adding a distinctive energy and warmth of his own.
On learning that his mother was seriously ill, Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1608, but she died before he arrived. Italy had become his spiritual home (he usually signed himself ‘Pietro Pauolo’) and he considered returning for good, but his success in Antwerp was so immediate and great that he remained there, and in spite of his extensive travels later in his career he never saw Italy again. In 1609 he was appointed court painter to the Archduke Albert and his wife the Infanta Isabella, the Spanish governors of the Netherlands (Isabella was the daughter of Philip II of Spain—see Habsburg); he was allowed to remain in Antwerp, even though the court was in Brussels. In the same year he married the 17-year-old Isabella Brant, the daughter of an eminent Antwerp lawyer. The portrait of himself and his wife that he painted to mark the union (Alte Pin., Munich) gives a wonderful picture of Rubens on the threshold of his prodigious career—handsome, vigorous, and dashingly self-confident. In the next few years he established his reputation as the pre-eminent painter in northern Europe, his first two resounding successes being the huge triptychs of the Raising of the Cross and the Descent from the Cross (1610–11 and 1611–14, Antwerp Cathedral), which showed his mastery of history painting in the Grand Manner and the immense vigour of his style.