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"It is just one hundred and twenty years to-day," said a young artist to his friend, as he stood in the hall of St. Mark, at Venice, contemplating the noble works of Titian. "Time, the destroyer, has here stayed his hand; the colors are as vivid and as fresh as if they were laid on but yesterday. Would that my old friend and master, Otho Venius, was here! At least I will carry back to Antwerp that in my coloring which shall prove to him that I have not played truant to the art."
"Just one hundred and twenty years," repeated he, "since Titian was born. Venice was then in its glory, but now it is all falling; its churches and palaces are crumbling to dust, its commerce interrupted. The republic continually harassed by the Porte, and obliged to call on foreign aid; depressed by her internal despotism, her council of ten, and state inquisitors; her decline, though gradual, is sure; yet the splendor of her arts remains, and the genius of Titian, her favorite son, is yet in the bloom and brilliancy of youth!"
Such was the enthusiastic exclamation of Rubens, as he contemplated those paintings which had brought him from Antwerp. How many gifted minds spoke to him from the noble works which were before him! The three Bellinis, the founders of the Venetian school; Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto. Then Paolo Veronese, who, though born at Verona, in 1537, adopted Venice as his home, and became the fellow-artist of Tintoretto, and the disciple of Titian. Pordenone, too, who viewed Titian as a rival and an enemy. Palma the young, and Palma the old, born in 1548, and the Bassanos, who died near 1627.
All these were present to the eye of Rubens, their genius embodied on the canvas in the halls of St. Mark. "These," he exclaimed, "have formed the Venetian school, and these shall be my study!"
From this time, the young artist might daily be seen with his sheets of white paper, and his pencil in his hand. A few strokes preserved the outline which his memory filled up; and by an intuitive glance, his genius understood and appropriated every signal beauty.
In Venice he became acquainted with the Archduke Albert, who introduced him to the Duke of Mantua, whither he went for the purpose of studying the works of Julio Romano. From thence he proceeded to Rome; here Raphael was his model, and Michael Angelo his wonder. He devoted himself to painting with a fervor that belongs only to genius; and he soon proved that, whatever he gained by ancient study, the originality of his own conceptions would still remain and appear. To the vivid and splendid coloring of the Venetian school, he was perhaps more indebted than to any other model. The affectionate and constant intercourse, by letters, that subsisted between Rubens and his mother, made his long residence in Italy one of pleasure. At Rome he was employed to adorn, by his paintings, the Church of Santa Croce, and also the "Chiesa Nova."
Rubens had been originally destined by his mother for one of the learned professions. His father was born at Antwerp, and held the honorable office of councillor of state. When the civil war broke out he repaired to Cologne, where his son, Peter Paul Rubens, was born. He died soon after his return to Antwerp, and left his property much diminished from losses occasioned by the civil war. The mother of Rubens put him early to the best schools, where he was initiated in learning and discovered a taste for belles-lettres; but all the intervals of necessary study were devoted to drawing. His mother perceiving it, determined to indulge his inclination, and placed him in the studio of Van Noort.
The correct taste of the scholar soon led him to perceive that he could not adopt this artist's style, and he became the pupil of Otho Venius. Similarity of thought and feeling united them closely, and it was with true disinterestedness that the master urged his pupil to quit his confined circle and repair to Italy, the great school of art.
Time flew rapidly with Rubens, while engaged in his beloved and honorable pursuit; he looked forward to the period when he might return to Antwerp and place his mother in her former affluence. Nearly seven years had passed since he took leave of her. Of late he thought her letters had been less cheerful; she spoke of her declining health, of her earnest hope that she might live to embrace him once more. This hint was enough for his affectionate heart. He immediately broke off all his engagements and prepared to return. Everyone knows what impatience is created when one first begins to contemplate home, after a long absence, and the heart is turned toward it. "Seven years absent?" wrote Rubens to his mother, "how is it possible I have lived so long away from you? It is too long; henceforth I will devote myself to your happiness. Antwerp shall be my future residence. I have acquired a taste for horticulture; our little garden shall be enlarged and cultivated, and our home will be a paradise."
What are human anticipations and projects! the day before he was to quit Rome he received a letter informing him that his mother was very ill, and begging him to return with all speed. With breathless haste he hurried back, without sleep or rest. When he reached the city he dared not make any inquiries. At length he stood before the paternal mansion; he saw the gloomy tiles and half-closed window-shutters. It was the fall of the trees. He observed people going in and out at the door; to speak was impossible. At length he rushed in and heard the appalling sentence, "Too late," a sentence that often strikes desolation to the human heart. His mother had expired that morning.
While he was struggling with the bitterness of sorrow, he met with Elizabeth Brants. There was something in the tone of her voice which infused tranquillity into his mind, and affection came in a new form to assuage his loss. She was the "ladye of his love," and afterward his wife. He built a magnificent house at Antwerp, with a saloon in form of a rotunda, which he ornamented and enriched with antique statues, busts, vases, and pictures by the most celebrated painters. Thus surrounded by the gems of art, he devoted himself to the execution of works which were the pride of his native country, and caused honors and wealth to be heaped upon him.
There were those found who could not endure the splendor of his success; these calumniated. There were others who tried to draw him into visionary speculations. A chemist offered him a share of his laboratory, to join in his search for the philosopher's stone. He carried the visionary to his painting-room, and said, "The offer comes too late. You see I have found out the art of making gold by my palette and pencils."
Rubens was now at the height of prosperity and happiness, a dangerous eminence, and one on which few are permitted to rest. A second time his heart was pierced with sorrow: he lost his young wife, Elizabeth, a few years after their union. Deep as was his sorrow, he had yet resolution enough to feel the necessity of exertion. He left the place which constantly reminded him of domestic enjoyment, the memory of which contrasted so sadly with the present silence and solitude, and travelled for some time in Holland. After his return, he received a commission from Mary de Medici, of France, to adorn the palace of the Luxembourg. He executed for this purpose a number of paintings at Antwerp, and instructed several pupils in his art.
At this time Rubens devoted himself wholly to painting, and scarcely allowed himself time for recreation. He considered it one of the most effectual means of instruction, to allow his pupils to observe his method of using his paints. He therefore had them with him while he worked on his large pictures. Teniers, Snyders, Jordaens, and Vandyke were among his pupils--all names well known.
When Rubens had executed the commission given him by Mary de Medici, wife of Henry IV., he repaired to Paris to arrange his pictures at the Luxembourg palace, and there painted two more, and likewise the galleries, representing passages of her life.
Here he became acquainted with the Duke of Buckingham, as that nobleman was on his way to Madrid with Prince Charles. On his return to Antwerp, he was summoned to the presence of the Infanta Isabella, who had, through Buckingham, become interested in his character. She thought him worthy of a political mission to the court of Madrid, where he was most graciously received by Philip. While at Madrid he painted four pictures for the convent of the Carmelites, and a fine portrait of the king on horseback, with many other pictures; for these extraordinary productions he was richly rewarded, received the honor of knighthood, and was presented with the golden key.
While in Spain, Don John, Duke of Braganza, who was afterward king of Portugal, sent and invited him to visit him at Villa Vitiosa, the place of his residence. Rubens, perhaps, might at this time have been a little dazzled with his uncommon elevation. He was now Sir Paul and celebrated all over Europe. It was proper he should make the visit as one person of high rank visits another. His preparations were great to appear in a becoming style, and not to shame his noble host. At length the morning arrived, and, attended by a numerous train of courteous friends and hired attendants, the long cavalcade began the journey. When not far distant from Villa Vitiosa, Rubens learned that Don John had sent an embassy to meet him. Such an honor had seldom been accorded to a private gentleman, and Rubens schooled himself to receive it with suitable humility and becoming dignity.
He put up at a little distance from Villa Vitiosa, awaiting the arrival of the embassy; finally it came, in the form of a single gentleman, who civilly told him that the duke, his master, had been obliged to leave home on business that could not be dispensed with, and therefore must deny himself the pleasure of the visit; but as he had probably been at some extra expense in coming so far, he begged him to accept of fifty pistoles as a remuneration.
Rubens refused the pistoles, and could not forbear adding that he had "brought two thousand along with him, which he had meant to spend at his court during the fifteen days he was to spend there."
The truth was, that when Don John was informed that Rubens was coming in the style of a prince to see him, it was wholly foreign to his plan; he was a great lover of painting, and had wished to see him as an artist. He therefore determined to prevent the visit.
The second marriage of Rubens, with Helena Forman, was, no less than the first, one of affection; she had great beauty, and became a model for his pencil. His favor with the great continued. Mary de Medici visited him at his own home more than once; and the Infanta Isabella was so much satisfied with his mission in Spain, that she sent him to England, to sound the disposition of the government on the subject of a peace.
Rubens disclosed in this embassy his diplomatic talents; he first appeared there in his character of artist, and insensibly won upon the confidence of Charles. The king requested him to paint the ceiling of the banqueting-house at Whitehall. While he was employed upon it, Charles frequently visited him and criticised the work. Rubens, very naturally introducing the subject, and finding, from the tenor of his conversation, that he was by no means averse to a peace with Spain, at length produced his credentials. The king received his mission most graciously, and Rubens returned to the Netherlands crowned with honors and success.
He had passed his fiftieth year when his health began to fail, and he was attacked with a severe fit of the gout. Those who have witnessed the irritation attendant upon that disorder will appreciate the perfect harmony and gentleness that existed between Rubens and his wife. With untiring tenderness she devoted herself to him, and was ingenious in devising alleviations and comforts.
The severe attacks of Rubens' disorder debilitated his frame, yet he continued painting at his easel almost to the last; and, amid suffering and sickness, never failed in giving the energy of intellect to his pictures. He died at the age of sixty-three, in the year 1640, leaving great wealth. The pomp and circumstance of funeral rite can only be of consequence as showing the estimation in which a departed citizen is held. Public funeral honors were awarded, and men of every rank were eager to manifest their respect to his memory. He was buried in the Church of St. James, at Antwerp, under the altar of his private chapel, which was decorated with one of his own noble pictures.