When we visit museums today, not only are the works that we see no longer in settings like those for which they were made, but in many cases the reasons why particular subjects were carved or painted are obscure. The subjects themselves are often unfamiliar, or at least they do not carry for us the kinds of association that they once had for the artists, the patrons, or their contemporaries. This point was tacitly recognized in the development of art history, which began as a process of compiling biographical information about artists and lists of their works. Then, from the middle decades of the nineteenth century, attention was focused on connoisseurship, the attempt to identify the artist or at least the geographical origin of unattributed works.
At about the same time there was an increasing preoccupation with the development of artistic style. The study of subject matter, for example in the work of Émile Mâle, was mainly associated with the art of the Middle Ages, a period for which identifiable artists were relatively uncommon. For later art such research was concerned primarily with a small number of paintings whose subject was particularly hard to identify, such as Botticelli’s so-called Primavera, on which two scholars associated with the Warburg Institute, Edgar Wind and Ernst Gombrich, both published elaborate interpretations.
Although a great deal of erudition has been applied to this type of research, the results have usually been disappointing. The main effect has been to create a widespread belief that works of art of the past were often full of learned allusions that would have been accessible only to a very restricted public. Scholars have in general paid less attention to the broader task of investigating the circumstances in which works of art were made, the implications of the subject matter for the artist and his contemporaries, and the setting in which such works were originally displayed.
Peter Paul Rubens was among the most prolific and was certainly the most successful painter of the seventeenth century. His style is instantly recognizable and he has always been regarded, not least by other painters, as one of the most gifted of all European artists. His family came from Antwerp, but after converting to Calvinism his father moved to Westphalia, where Rubens was born in 1577. Following his father’s death ten years later, his mother returned to Antwerp, where he was trained as a painter. In 1600 he traveled to Italy, where he remained for the next eight years, apart from a trip to Spain. He acquired a deep knowledge of ancient and recent Italian art, notably the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Caravaggio, which served as the basis of his own distinctive style.
Thereafter his social skills and linguistic gifts qualified him to serve on more than one occasion as a diplomat for the Spanish Hapsburgs, who then controlled the …
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