Peter Paul Rubens was a wonderful family man. He had three children with his first wife, Isabella Brandt, whom he adored. On June 20, 1626, Isabella Brandt died at the age of 35, probably from tuberculosis. She concealed the illness from him. Life as the spouse of one of the most celebrated and successful men of the age had made her long suffering and patient. He realized there was nothing he could do for her and he abandoned all attempts at work. He was a 'lost soul.' Rubens lost his youth when Isabella died, which is seen in the self portraits he painted at this time, showing weight gain, graying beard, heavy jowls and black under his eyes.
On December 6, l630, at the age of 53, he married a girl of only 16, the age of his eldest son. An unlikely match, his marriage to Helene Fourment succeeded because of his complete devotion and love for her and her complete love for him and his children. They were deliriously happy and she bore him five more children. With all the children in the house and Helene as a good mother to all of them, he was a very content man. She was responsible for Rubens rejuvenation as an artist. Helene was all things to him, mistress as well as wife, and he made certain all the world understood this. He made many paintings of Helene during their life together.
It is said that no movie will ever be made about Rubens. He had no fits of temper, no bouts with madness, felt no need to shock people into noticing his art, nor had numerous affairs. He was a faithful husband and a caring father. All his life he tried to honor his family name in order to make people forget the scandal his father brought to it before he was born.
He judged his own work honestly. There was no vanity here. He worked hard but always saved time for his family. It was his discipline that he considered his greatest asset and responsible for his steady progress. Centuries have confirmed his immortality but Rubens himself would not have been surprised or expected otherwise. He was, after all, his own best critic.
Unlike today, where art seems removed from the concerns of day to day living and is often considered a pleasant distraction from the hurried pattern of our lives, artists held a powerful position in society in the days we call "The Renaissance." During this period, art was absorbed into the waters of life through its identification with the spiritual and moral lessons absorbed into the waters of life through its identification with the spiritual and moral lessons immediately understood by gazing eyes of the many who worshiped. The Church, the greatest of patrons, supported countless artists, including Raphael and Leonardo Da Vinci.
Michelangelo, a very well educated artist, was concerned first with the visual impact of the work, no matter how rich the meaning. His figures show a grace and movement that keep the eye entranced and the mind engaged. When he was commissioned to paint the Sistine Ceiling using the original boring scheme (he thought) of the Twelve Apostles, he rejected the idea. Pope Julius gave in and announced that he could 'do whatever he wanted.' And, so he did....covering an area over 10,000 square feet and containing 343 figures, proving to all, that he was a painter as well as a sculptor.
Restoration on the Sistine Chapel started as early as 1566 with continued work in 1572, 1825 and early 1900's. The cleaning of the lunettes started in 1980-1989. For years the darker color scheme of the Sistine Ceiling was accepted by scholars as the way in which Michelangelo painted. Michelangelo, himself, through his letters encouraged the thought process, stating many times that he was not a painter, adding to the belief that he was not a colorist. But over the years, with heavy use of incense and candles continually darkening the ceiling, there were people who suspected that the colors he used were not representative of his methods. With the last cleaning of the ceiling completed in 1989, these beliefs were put to rest and the soot and grime, removed 500 years later, revealed colors that sing and make strange harmonies. Seeing these new colors along with the volumes and weight of his figures which have rhythms that feed the eyes, Michelangelo created a coherent picture of the world in which he lived. He was a man whose art served a purpose....filling a need for all the people of his world we call "The Renaissance."
In 1517 Raphael was commissioned by Giulio di Medici, bishop of the cathedral at Narbonne, to paint "The Transfiguration." We know it never traveled to France but ended up in Rome. Although virtually complete at the time of Raphael's death, it was still unfinished and Giulio Romano contributed minimally to finishing off the figures of the epileptic boy and his father in the lower right part of the design.
Raphael died on April 6, 1520, only 37 years old. The Transfiguration was near his deathbed, a picture that he had been working on for some years. He died on Good Friday, the same day he had been born. This coincidence, as well as his premature death, provided wonderment, keeping the image of 'The Divine Raphael' alive.
The Transfiguration, a huge painting over 4 meters high, was the high point of Raphael's genius. The scene was set on a mountain top in the distant landscape. Originally, Christ stood erect on the ground between Elijah and Moses and was surrounded by three apostles kneeling in the foreground. This was later changed to figures levitating and the kneeling apostles fallen over in amazement of what was taking place. Many studies were left behind showing the progression as decisions were made and changed until the final perfected painting was achieved. The bottom half of The Transfiguration shows the disciples, who have lost their faith, helpless in their quest to cure the young boy with epilepsy. The child's relatives as well as the apostles are at a loss as outstretched arms point to the only help that is to come....Christ. It is in this section that this study with these two men, perhaps apostles, one young and one old, bending forward in the middle ground looking helpless takes place.
Raphael painted and drew with great feeling and expression. He pursued his artistic path like a lightning bolt His ambition transformed painting into a language capable of expressing every aspect of mankind: beauty, ugliness, faith, sadness and the rage to live. He had a rare gift to absorb what he needed from his predecessors and contemporaries and turn it into what his patrons wanted. He was successful in his own day. What more would he have achieved in lifetime if he had lived longer!
At the end of Michelangelo's life, he said that he regretted that there was so much more to learn. Most serious artists, even today, reach that same conclusion. I suppose that every serious learner of any subject matter feels the same.
To the masters of the past, to play was to learn. Their play, different from today's meaning, was to become so good at their craft that it would be as natural as breathing. Theirs was an impressive profession as they made sketches, then detailed studies and then reconstructed their experience into a composition using all of their knowledge and skills. They were meticulous about learning the rules and techniques that were expected of them to become the next painter of their world. They took seriously that they were the bridge over which the next generation would march. They knew that other generations would be able to 'read' their works, just as they could 'read' masters who came before them. They honored the techniques that were handed down to them. Their goal was not to amuse themselves while they pushed paint around on their canvas or worked at a picture until their eye told them it was correct. Their goal was to understand why it worked. They were detectives. They were thinkers. They searched for that harmonious arrangement of all the parts of the picture where every value showed rhythm, every size and shape was perfect and nothing could be added or taken away without destroying the harmony of the whole. They saw a landscape or a figure and tried to put it down so they could show it to the world. You see, they were more concerned about impressing these masters of the past than they were in impressing those who knew nothing about their art.
Perhaps we will all not be a Michelangelo but isn't it worth your while to learn to read their works, to be guided by them, the greatest minds of the art world? Isn't it better to learn a little about how great art always was and is than to spend your time filling the hours hoping to find that elusive magic bullet that will turn your works into art?