The case of Rubens and his workshop Lecture Series Making a Living in Art, Literature and Music

The case of Rubens and his workshop

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Alejandro Vergara


  1. Alejandro VergaraAlejandro Vergara

    Alejandro Vergara Sharp es Doctor en Historia del Arte por el Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, y ha sido profesor de historia el arte en la Universidad de California en San Diego (UCSD), y en Columbia University, en Nueva York. Actualmente ocupa el cargo de Jefe de Conservación de Pintura Flamenca y Escuelas del Norte en el Museo del Prado. Es autor de numerosas publicaciones dedicadas al arte flamenco, entre las que destacan Patinir y la invención del paisaje (2007), Rubens. La Adoración de los Magos (2004), Las Tres Gracias de Rubens (2001) y Rubens and His Spanish Patrons (1999). En el Museo del Prado ha sido comisario de múltiples exposiciones, entre ellas la dedicada a Rubens en estos últimos meses (2010-2011), Rembrandt. Pintor de Historias (2008-2009), Patinir: La invención del paisaje (2007), Pedro Pablo Rubens: La Adoración de los Magos (2004), Pedro Pablo Rubens: La Historia de Aquiles (2003-2004), Vermeer y el Interior Holandés (2003). También ha sido comisario de la exposición El Arte de la Corte de los Archiduques Alberto de Austria e Isabel Clara Eugenia (1598-1633). Un Reino Imaginado, celebrada en el Palacio Real de Madrid en  1999-2000, y de la muestra The Visual Front: Spanish Civil War Posters From the Southworth Collection (1997 en San Diego, Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California; 1998 en Nueva York, Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University; y 2002-2003, en Florida International University).


Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) is the paradigm of the European Modern Age artist, due to both his vital and professional trajectory and the huge success he gained. His activity is very well documented and allows us to appreciate how he organized his life based on practical questions, with the aim of reaching success and maximizing his economical benefits. The periods in which this principle is more clearly observed is during his training, and later, as an independent master, on the way he organized his artistic production and commercialized it.

Ruben´s training, like an the case of any other painter of his time, is based on a tradition of Medieval origin that was of practical nature. It was an education based on several years of residing in the house and workshop of a master painter. The young candidate learned his craft, while the master obtained the economical benefits of his labour.

Since the beginning of Renaissance, the idea that painters and sculptors had to have a humanist education, consisting of classic culture knowledge and learning an idealistic concept of art, was established in Italy. With this training, painters could be closer to the role models of the social elites and access the benefits that this position offered. Non of the artists of the time of Rubens resolved this contradiction that both models produced, humanist versus artisanal, in such a harmonic way as he did: Rubens studied in a Latin school and also spent time in the workshops of three different painters, and he managed to match these training models in a single praxis.

The organization of the professional activity of Rubens was based on the creation of a very specialized workshop where many youngsters coming from all of Europe received training. Rubens explained in his mails the large amount of applications to work with him he received, as well as the way he organized the work in his workshop. His system allowed him to paint the approximately two thousand paintings that are estimated he authored, and also to become the most quoted and requested painter of Europe.

To make his workshop efficient, he needed to be productive and with high quality, and for this Rubens surrounded himself with the most prominent young artist of his environment. The most famous one was Anton Van Dyck (1599-1641), a painter that is particularly interesting to understand the constraints an artist of his generation had to face. Van Dyck was a young man with great artistic and social ambitions, and exceptional talent. From an early age he had to worry about making a life through painting based on the information provided by one of his first biographers, Roger de Piles, who wrote "he had to work hard because he was in need". In the art of young Van Dyck we find together the need to painting like Rubens, his master around 1618-1621 who sold his paintings as if they were made by him, combined with a very strong personality that made him look with emphasis for opportunities to show his own pictorial language. In the case of Van Dyck, this need to find his own professional way not only influenced the way he organized his professional labour, but also influenced the creation of a very original an personal pictorial style.