Rubens, Peter Paul
Rubens Rubens's contacts with England began more than a decade before his visit in 1629–30. In 1618 he wrote 2 celebrated letters to Sir Dudley Carleton, listing the paintings – both autograph and studio pieces – which he proposed to offer in exchange for Carleton's collection of antiquities. In 1620 he painted the Countess of Arundel and her entourage (Munich) on their passage through Antwerp; and his admiration for Arundel himself is voiced on a number of occasions in the correspondence. By 1621 he had painted a Hunt for Charles as Prince of Wales. In that year he indicated his interest in the decoration of the Banqueting House in Whitehall by Inigo Jones, then under construction (the most original building of its time in London); negotiations may have been taken further when he met Buckingham in Paris in 1625. Soon thereafter he painted the ceiling of the Duke's house in the Strand and an equestrian portrait (only sketches survive: National Gallery and Fort Worth, Texas). Also in 1625 Charles I asked for a Self-Portrait (Royal Collection).
Rubens arrived in England in 1629, as an emissary of the Habsburgs, to open negotiations for peace with Spain, and left again, with a knighthood, in March 1630. It must have been in the course of this year that Rubens's most important English commission, for the ceiling of the Banqueting House, was finally settled. (The canvases were to be painted by him in Antwerp and dispatched to London.) While still in England, Rubens painted the Thames Landscape with St George and the Dragon (Royal Collection) for the King, as well as a number of portraits, including those of Arundel and the King's physician, Turquet de Mayerne. He expressed his hopes for peace in the so-called War and Peace (National Gallery), in which he allegorically represented the cessation of war and the fruits of peace, a theme which was to be expanded in the Whitehall ceiling.
In addition to the Whitehall paintings themselves, still in situ, 15 sketches survive, of which the most important is the monochrome modello now at Glynde Place (Sussex). The almost wholly allegorical iconography of the ceiling is not entirely clear. The square panel over the entrance represents the Union of the Crowns (in 1604), while that over the throne shows James I turning from war towards peace, who embraces plenty. In the centre is an oval panel representing the Apotheosis of James, while the 4 smaller ovals in the corners each have 2 large allegorical figures symbolizing triumphs over intemperance, avarice, ignorance and envy (or rebellion). The long panels at the sides show putti playing with garlands and animals, emphasizing the benefits of peace. The canvases were installed in 1635–6, Rubens received £3000 and a gold chain, and the performance of masques in the hall ceased almost immediately, in order to protect the paintings from the effects of smoke.
At the end of the 1630s there was talk of commissioning Rubens to decorate the Queen's House in Greenwich with a History of Psyche, but with his death the commission went to the cheaper and still vigorous Jordaens. (David Freedberg)
W. N. Sainsbury, Original papers illustrative of the life of Rubens (1859) O. Millar, Rubens, the Whitehall ceiling (1958)
J. Held in Burl. Mag. (1970), 277–81
The age of Charles I (1972)
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