In 1621, Peter Paul Rubens received the commission of a lifetime, creating 24 tableaux for the decoration of two galleries in the Luxembourg Palace for Marie de Medici; a series of 21 paintings reflecting a visual biography of the Queen, including three portraits of Marie, her mother and father. With three years to complete the contract, Rubens was faced with subject matter full of overly dramatic, but unremarkable events, set against a tense political climate. “realism… would have been most dangerous.” 1
A short history lesson to illustrate the tenuous relationship of Marie de Medici and her son Louis XIII appears to be in order. Marie became the second wife to King Henry IV of France in 1600. When Henry was assassinated in 1610, Louis was only 10 years old and his mother acted as regent as commanded by law in case of an infant ruler. However, even after Louis came of age at thirteen, the queen continued to rule in his name. At age fifteen, Louis gained control of his throne and exiled his mother to Blois. The family was not reconciled for six years, in 1621, and Marie was permitted to return to Paris. She focused on building and decorating the Luxembourg Palace, where Rubens played a key role. An additional cycle of paintings dedicated to the life of Henry IV was never completed, but some preliminary sketches survive.2 The fact this series was not realized can be attributed in part to Marie being permanently banned from France by her son in 1631. She escaped to Brussels and died in exile in 1642, while living at the same house that Peter Paul Rubens’ family had occupied more than fifty years prior.
Mixing his knowledge of classical literature and artistic tradition with allegorical representations, Rubens was able to produce the cycle of paintings. The contract for this assignment, written in French and signed February 26, 1622, by Marie de Medici, her secretary Claude Bouthillier, Rubens and two additional unidentified persons, is a primary piece of the small collection at the Morgan Library and Museum relating to Rubens and Marie de Medici. The contract is housed with another in the same format that involves several other artists, as well as two letters written by Rubens. Details in the images show Rubens’ signature next to a few marginal addendum, and Marie de Medici’s simplistic signature, simply ‘Marie.’ The cycle of paintings now hang in the Louvre.
Rubens was an adept employee of numerous royal courts throughout Europe and Britain, traversing many political climates. The bombastic grandiosity of his paintings were demanded by those who claimed their authority was a divine right. But his negotiating skills, particularly the peace agreement between England and Spain in 1630, have been shrouded in secrecy over time. My summer reading list includes “Master of the Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens”, with more blog articles exploring this historic individual. Any suggestions on Rubens and his career would be most welcome.
1. Bertam, Anthony, The Life of Sir Peter-Paul Rubens (London: Peter Davies, 1928), 110.
2. Belkin, Kristin Lohse, Rubens, Phaidon Press, 1998, 175-6.