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Peter Paul Rubens: Painting for Peace in an Age of War - HOA00102M

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  • Department: History of Art
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Adam Sammut
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

This module aims to rehabilitate Rubens as a revolutionary innovator who redefined what it meant to be a painter, inspiring Rembrandt, Velázquez and many after them.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2023-24

Module aims

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was probably the most successful artist in European history. Knighted by the kings of Spain and England, he oversaw a large studio that produced over a thousand works during his lifetime, from monumental paintings to tapestries, sculpture and even architecture. If that was not enough, Rubens enjoyed parallel careers as a diplomat and man of letters, amassing a magnificent art collection for his palatial Antwerp townhouse. Precisely because of his complexity as an artist, Rubens is often reduced to the Rubenesque nude. Meanwhile, his work for absolutist monarchs and militant Catholicism has put him on the wrong side of latter-day secular, democratic sensibilities. This module aims to rehabilitate Rubens as a revolutionary innovator who redefined what it meant to be a painter, inspiring Rembrandt, Velázquez and many after them.

Attracting such superlatives as pictor princeps, pictor doctus and the ‘Apelles of our age’ during his lifetime, Rubens’ work embodied a desire to “actualise” Antiquity and bring peace and unity to a war-torn Europe. Working within a distinctly Flemish idiom, Rubens’ art reflected the bourgeois values of early-seventeenth-century Antwerp, a Spanish mercantile metropolis in the north that traded in textiles and spices. Paradoxically, Rubens’ meteoric rise coincided with the city’s economic eclipse by Amsterdam in the Dutch Republic and indeed, the decline of Spain as an imperial power under Philip IV. This module considers the historical circumstances of Rubens’ career whilst bringing to bear the latest trends in scholarship, including critically informed perspectives such as global art history and questions of gender.

This module aims to cover: Rubens’ Italian sojourn (1600-8), including his copies after the Antique and modern Italian artists like Caravaggio and his work for Italian patrons; Rubens and the Counter-Reformation, with a focus on Antwerp churches like St Walburgis and the Jesuit church; the Rubens House, its studio and art collection; Rubens and the construction of gender from heroic masculinity to Het Pelsken, a naked portrait of his second wife Helena Fourment; Rubens in London museums including the ceiling of the Banqueting House, Whitehall; the Marie de’ Medici cycle for the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris and its unfinished counterpart, the Henri IV series; and the Pompa Introitus Ferdinandi, street decorations for the joyous entry of Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand – the new governor of the Spanish Netherlands – into Antwerp in 1634.

Students will be introduced to a range of primary sources including Rubens’ correspondence, the documents of the painters’ guild of St Luke and books formerly in Rubens’ library including classical works in the humanist tradition, many of which were published by Antwerp’s Plantin Press. Close scrutiny will be paid to preparatory material including drawings and oil sketches to understand Rubens’ executive role in the production process. This module will not enshrine the idea of a singular genius working in isolation but instead, illuminate how Rubens collaborated with assistants and colleagues, taking inspiration from Greco-Roman statuary and the works of Titian, Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Hendrick Goltzius among others. This module will incorporate a day trip to London, including visits to the Courtauld Gallery and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will have acquired:

  • knowledge of Rubens’ work across media including paintings, drawings, prints, tapestries and architecture
  • an understanding of relevant historical contexts including the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), the Counter-Reformation and the Habsburg Empire and how political, social and economic factors brought to bear on Rubens’ work
  • familiarity with primary and secondary sources including Rubens’ correspondence, archives pertaining to Antwerp, classical and humanist texts and the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard (1969-)
  • advanced visual analysis skills: recognition of various techniques e.g., for works on paper, the ability to decipher complex mythological, religious and political symbolism
  • presentation skills in seminars and in front of artworks
  • skills in critical reading, ability to weigh up evidence and argue cogently
  • research skills using academic libraries and the internet

Indicative assessment

Task Length % of module mark
4000 Word Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Indicative reassessment

Task Length % of module mark
4000 Word Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive feedback on assessed work within the timeframes set out by the University - please check the Guide to Assessment, Standards, Marking and Feedback for more information.

The purpose of feedback is to help you to improve your future work. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further, you are warmly encouraged to meet your Supervisor during their Office Hours.

Indicative reading

  • Belkin, Kristin Lohse. Art & Ideas: Rubens. London: Phaidon, 1998.
  • Belkin, Kristin Lohse and Fiona Healy, editors. A House of Art: Rubens as Collector. Schoten: BAI, 2004.
  • Brown, Christopher. Rubens's Landscapes: Making & Meaning. London: National Gallery Publications, 1996.
  • Donovan, Fiona. Rubens and England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
  • Herremans, Valérie. Rubens Unveiled: Paintings from Lost Antwerp Churches. Ghent: Snoeck, 2013.
  • Van Hout, Nico. Rubens Unveiled: Notes on the Master’s Painting Technique. Ghent: Snoeck, 2012.
  • Jaffe, Michael. Rubens and Italy. Oxford: Phaidon, 1977.
  • Knaap, Anna C. and Michael C. J. Putnam, editors. Art, Music, and Spectacle in the Age of Rubens: The Pompa Introitus Ferdinandi. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013.
  • Lombaerde, Piet, editor. Innovation and Experience in the Early Baroque in the Southern Netherlands: The Case of the Jesuit Church in Antwerp. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008.
  • Lusheck, Catherine H. Rubens and the Eloquence of Drawing. London: Routledge, 2017.
  • Marr, Alexander. Rubens’s Spirit: Art and Ingenuity in Early Modern Europe. London: Reaktion, 2021.
  • Rosenthal, Lisa. Gender, Politics, and Allegory in the Art of Rubens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Rubens, Peter Paul. The Letters of Sir Peter Paul Rubens. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955.
  • Sutton, Peter et al., editors. Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
  • Underhill, Justin. “Peter Paul Rubens and the Rationalization of Light”. Konsthistorisk Tidskrift / Journal of Art History 87, no. 1 (2018): 1-22.
  • Various. Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard. 27 volumes. London: 1969-.
  • Various. Special Issue, “Rubens and the Netherlands”. Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 55 (2004).
  • Wood, Jeremy, editor. Lives of Rubens. London: Pallas Athene, 2005.
  • Van Wyhe, Cordula. Rubens and the Human Body. Turnhout: Brepols, 2018.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University constantly explores ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary. In some instances it may be appropriate for the University to notify and consult with affected students about module changes in accordance with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.