Master of Shadows

The Secret Diplomatic Career

of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens

by Mark Lamster

Nan A. Talese, 336 pp., $29.95

When a surname becomes the basis for an adjective, the resulting meaning tends to be resoundingly one-dimensional. To wit: the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, an artist with a penchant for busty nudes replete with puckerings, the occasional roll, and dimpled mounds, begetting the word “Rubenesque” for any amply proportioned female.

Chances are, you’re much better acquainted with the adjective than the work of the painter; few people can cite a Rubens painting by name, but “Rubenesque” is a word you could hear while watching American Idol. History so often recalls Rubens as an Old World master of a painting style—symbolic representation, heavy on Greek and biblical references—that we now think of as dusty and far removed. After all, how many modern museum-strollers have the time to invest in all of the classical books you’d need to make sense of his symbolism? But despite the one-dimensionality associated with the painter’s name, here’s a book that posits Rubens as a multitasker to best any electronic gizmo-equipped world-beater going today.

Rubens wasn’t content with merely being, conceivably, the world’s greatest painter for the better portion of his adult life. Rather, he outfitted his vocational title with a host of others. Like superspy, for one—in addition to treaty negotiator, statesmen well met, wealthy landowner, antiquities dealer, factory head. Rubens enjoyed a joke, but he was a prideful man, and you have to wonder what he would think of the irony that rarely is his name associated with top-level performance skills across a range of disciplines and most often with multiple trips to the refrigerator.

Rubens the politico-spy is just one of his many iterations that emerge in the pages of Master of Shadows, but it’s perhaps the least likely variant, given what was regarded as an artist’s lack of prospects when it came to upward mobility in the 16th and 17th centuries. Painters were viewed as manual laborers, members of the “folk” because they worked with their hands. They could, conceivably, earn a fortune—and Rubens certainly did—with royal commissions, and frequently worked as factory bosses, with helpers and students executing large portions of the paintings that bore the master’s name. But rarely were they conscripted into diplomatic service, despite what Mark Lamster cites as the most natural cover: They had the ear of kings, queens, dukes, and assorted courtiers. These were the people, after all, sitting for hours at a time, one on one, with the man with the brush.

Rubens the master portraitist was also a master ingratiator, and was eventually put on military salary by the Spanish crown (which had dominion over his native Antwerp). Handsome, affable, quick-witted, and a natural salesman—who also knew when to shut his mouth—Rubens was indeed “a capable diplomatic operator at ease in the most rarefied precincts of European power.” Lamster goes on to call him “the perfect spy.” There’s no doubt that Rubens’s chameleonic gifts were useful to Europe’s checkered and combustible politics. If war was not raging somewhere, it was likely about to be. Intrigue was everywhere, with one backroom deal being canceled out by another, and a third in place as a contingency plan. Rubens’s typical ruse was that of some art-centric business: The standard dodge could be that he had an altarpiece to execute, or some restoration work was needed in a king’s chambers, or a valuable Rembrandt collection was in need of authentication. Whatever got him in the room with Europe’s decision-makers.

An impressive profiteer in his own right, Rubens managed to balance affairs of state with his personal business interests, displaying his trademark calculation and stoicism along the way. He was anything but a firebrand, at least externally; repeatedly browbeaten by various members of the nobility, the painter-cum-spy worked ceaselessly to put himself in a better position to please, typically winning the favor of a king (such as Spain’s Philip IV) who had previously held his lack of a birthright against him.

“I am displeased at your mixing up a painter in affairs of such importance,” Philip huffed to his Aunt Isabella,

co-sovereign of the Spanish Netherlands. Later, Philip would become enamored with the painter, ostensibly unable to determine whether he thought more of him as an artist or as a man who moved along heel-draggers on the political front.

Rubens approached negotiations as he might have approached a painting. That is, as a problem to be solved, requiring just the right balance of materials and techniques—shadow, color, and symbolism on the painting side of the equation; pointed reasons, financial assurances, and talk of shared interests at court. On occasion, Rubens overextended himself, negotiating treaties without the authority to do so; but there’s little denying that he was a polymath qualified to be especially well versed in political matters, knowing human nature so well, and history too. Lamster liberally quotes Rubens’s aphoristic political musings, which tend to resonate now as then: “Confidence alone is the foundation of all human commerce,” he opined, and there’s little in his own adventures to suggest otherwise.

Intriguingly, we see Rubens’s political dalliances feeding into his art, ceding it greater narrative scope. His early work—featuring all manner of convoluted subtext (even Rubens said you’d be taxed to discover what he meant without his help)—gave way to a style where the relationship between metaphor and meaning became more direct. He had a pressing need to make sure his clientele understood precisely what his art was conveying. Satiating human vanity went a long way in Rubens’s political career, and positing a king as some kind of metaphorical god of justice and happiness, beloved of his flock, made for a favorable frame of mind when a favor was needed.

At times, Rubens inserted his own image into his paintings depicting some diplomatic triumph or other, a de facto acknowledgment of his own role in European power relations. He reworked his Adoration of the Magi—executed in 1609 in recognition of the signing of the Twelve Years’ Truce between the northern Netherlands’ provinces and the Spanish-controlled lower region—to feature his own person atop a horse, the worthy crusader. The truce had expired, but Rubens’s role as a mediator had not.

Few scholars, as Lamster points out, pay much attention to Rubens’s diplomatic career. The art historians, not surprisingly, tend to care only insofar as the machinations at court informed what Rubens rendered on the canvas; political historians often overlook Rubens’s accomplishments as an intermediary because of their fleeting effects. “Rubens’s greatest achievement as a statesman, the treaty he negotiated between Spain and England, is now a footnote in the grand sweep of seventeenth-century international relations,” Lamster writes. Many of the measures Rubens brought about didn’t last, and were canceled out by war, or new accords. And a reconciliation of Spain’s Dutch territory and the northern Dutch provinces did not take hold until eight years after Rubens’s death, thereby keeping him from witnessing a diplomatic dream, of sorts. It was a dream that never would have transpired without Rubens’s years of intense identity-shifting, an ability akin to removing one painted image to replace it with another, and then back again, perpetually.

Colin Fleming, a writer in Boston, is the author of a forthcoming collection of stories.

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