Rubens’ The Garden of Love, c. 1633. Photograph: Museo
Peter Paul Rubens the Flemish painter who decorated palaces and banqueting halls, went on diplomatic and spying missions, owned a landed estate and somehow found time to fill the Old Master galleries of the world with colossal canvases of boar and lion hunts, characterful portraits, epic history paintings and visceral sea monsters in the not so copious 63 years he lived from 1577 to 1640, is a world in itself.
From his cycle of 24 enormous paintings that celebrate the life of Marie de’ Medici in the Louvre to his ceiling of the Banqueting House in London with its portrayal of James I being welcomed into heaven, Rubens is such a stupendous flatterer that you forget the overt cynicism of the propaganda and just wallow in his scintillating light, swirling space, and swagging clouds.
But is Rubens, for all his inexhaustible brilliance, really the artist among artists the RA takes him to be?
He used to be called “The Prince of Painters”, its publicity reminds us. This old term of praise is, today, more like a warning light. Rubens moved in high society, a courtier as much as an artist. He is, ultimately, a supreme decorator who never touches profundity.