Prof. Zirka Filipczak

e-mail: )

office hours: Tues. 2-4 and by appointment

The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) had a multi-faceted life and an enormously productive artistic career. By the 1630s, that is, the time between the dominant influence of Caravaggio and then of Poussin, he became the most influential painter in Western Europe.

Rubens was also a serious scholar treated as an equal by other scholars. According to the criteria of his own age, Rubens may have been the most learned artist that ever lived, according to Julius Held (author of several assigned readings). In addition, he worked as a political diplomat for the Spanish Hapsburgs, who remained the rulers of the Southern Netherlands. In fact, he received knighthood from both Philip IV of Spain and Charles I of England for his diplomatic missions in the cause of peace, and not for his art, which both kings admired and commissioned. His intellectual and political engagement is evident in his art.

With some paintings Rubens alone seems to have applied every visible stroke, examples being most of his landscapes and family portraits.( He married twice, his second wife being sixteen when he was forty-three, and had several children, one of them born after his death.) His best-known paintings, however, are the monumental ones designed for public spaces across large spaces. Many of these huge, international commissions involved substantial help from assistants. To optimize the results Rubens organized his studio to permit the separation of invention from much of the execution. A number of works are only partially painted by him for another reason, because he collaborated with specialists in landscape and still life. The implications of this working method need to be examined.

Because his paintings have brilliant color, rippling forms, and often huge size, their sensual appeal camouflages the knowledge and thoughtfulness that Rubens manifested not only in his choice and interpretation of subjects, but also in his approach to size and format. A seminar is only enough time to begin to get a feel for his work, whose richness of content becomes increasingly apparent with closer study.


Paperback: Kristin Belkin, Rubens (purchase at bookstore)

All other required readings are in the packet of Xeroxes (the first readings also on Blackboard for our course.)

Most of the books from which these excerpts are taken and others for research will be on reserve.

Short assignments:

5 minute report on a single work (see Sept. 18 )

1 page paper (see Sept. 25 )

Large research project:

A topic can be chosen from a list of suggestions to be provided. For example, Rubens sometimes introduced references to 17th-century clothing in historical situations of the past, or dressed contemporary figures in timeless or classical attire. A topic could be to examine the function of these choices, focusing on key examples. Another topic could be to compare different interpretations of the most controversial parts of the Medici cycle and establish your own position.

Of course the topic can also be of your own devising, but consult before making the final decision.

Oral presentation

Pprobably ca. 40 min.

The most important and interesting material from your research project (on November 6, 13, 20 and rescheduled 27).

Research paper

20-25 pages, plus bibliography and footnotes. Due last day of classes.



September 11: Introductory overview

And facing the question of why a seminar focused on Rubens.

September 18: Working method

5 minute reports today:

Slides will be provided from which to choose one of the following

1) compare a preparatory oil sketch with a finished painting by Rubens.

2) compare a copy by Rubens with the original work

Reading (all short selections):

Ruth Magurn from The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens 1955

Julius S. Held from Rubens. Selected Drawings 1959

Julius S. Held from The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens 1980

Peter Sutton, “Rubens’s Studio Practices” and “Collaboration” in The Age of Rubens.

exhib. cat. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1994.

Susan Koslow, “How looked the Gorgon then…” from Shop Talk. Studies in Honor of Seymour Slive, 1995

Jacob Burckhardt from Recollections of Rubens 1893

September 25: Quotations and paraphrases


Wolfgang Stechow from Rubens and the Classical Tradition 1968

Jeffrey Mulle from, Rubens. The Artist as Collector 1989

Recommended: Christopher White, “Rubens and Antiquity” in The Age of Rubens 1993


Turn in a 1 page paper in class discussing why Rubens quoted a classical or Renaissance figure in a painting. What role does it play? (slides from which you can choose your comparison will be provided)

October 2: Political Propaganda

Rubens modified his approach to fit the situation. He thus could make the political significance very clear, or create deliberate ambiguity permitting more than one interpretation. His commissions included site specific and permanent installations, as well as triumphal entry decorations that stood temporarily in the streets of Antwerp.


Julius S. Held, “Rubens’s Glynde Sketch and the Installation of the Whitehall Ceiling,” (written 1970) from Rubens and his Circle

Elizabeth McGrath, “Rubens’s Arch of the Mint”[for the triumphal entry of Archduke Infant Ferdinand into Antwerp, 1634] from The Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 1974

Recommended: R. Millen and R. Wolf from Heroic Deeds and Mystic Figures

October 9: Size and Shape

Rubens gave considerable thought to the shape of paintings for iconographic as well as perceptual reasons and also to their size, because he seemed exceptionally aware that the same composition has a different visual impact when done on a large or a small scale.


Fran Baudouin, “Altars and Altarpieces before 1620” in Rubens before 1620, ed. J.R. Martin. 1972

October 16:Art for religious devotion.

Discussion will include the relationship between Rubens’s altarpieces, relics of saints, and miracle-working statues of Madonnas.


David Freedberg, “Painting and the Counter Reformation in the Age of Rubens,” in The Age of Rubens 1993

J.R.Martin, Rubens. The Antwerp Altarpieces especially the documents –contracts -- right at the end. 1969

October 23: Tapestries, and title pages of books.

That is, designs for works 20th-century viewers tend to ignore.

How did Rubens include the text needed on a title page and pair it with an image? Did his designs for tapestries (e.g. Constantine Tapestries, Phila. Museum) differ from his paintings?


Julius S. Held, “Rubens and the Book,” from Rubens and his Circle.

October 30: Classical Mythology: narrative or allegory?

Rubens has rightly been described as a great narrator, Jacob Burckhardt going so far as to consider him the best narrative painter ever (“the two greatest story tellers our earth has ever borne- Homer and Rubens”). Svetlana Alpers, however, has interpreted some of Rubens’s mythological paintings from the 1610s as being more allegorical than narrative, and her reading applies to certain later works as well. When and how did Rubens combine narrative and allegory?


Svetlana Alpers, “Manner and Meaning in Some of Rubens Mythologies,” from Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 1967.

November 6, 13, 20 Reports

November 27 cancelled (to be rescheduled if needed; apologies, giving a talk at a Rubens Symposium at the Univ.of Nottingham)

Dec.4: Interesting material from the Rubens symposium. Final thoughts and remaining questions