Print   |   Back
November 23, 2015
Moments in Art
Diplomacy and Bribery with Forgery (Rubens 5)
by Lawrence Jeppson

During Peter Paul Rubens’s lifetime, Europe continued to be a cauldron of international skullduggery. The contending nations were England, Spain, France, Portugal, and Holland. Belgium (Flanders) was caught in the middle. It was controlled by Spain.

At the beginning of the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) the Low Countries were Spanish possessions, but the seven northern provinces, Holland, succeeded in breaking the Spanish stranglehold and became a major colonial power, with a formidable fleet and possession of one of the most lucrative trading empires any European player ever exploited, the Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia.

After bribing the Spanish Duke of Lerma for Vincenzo, Duke of Mantua, with a combination of faked replicas of admired paintings by Italian masters, Rubens spent a year in Madrid, where works by Titian and Raphael abounded. He copied these and other Italian masterpieces enthusiastically, but he found no talent among the Spanish painters of the time, only “incredible incompetence.”

Alarmed by reports of his mother's ill health, Rubens rushed back to Antwerp. Too late. Although under commitment to return to Vincenzo’s employ in Italy, he did not.

The Belgian sovereigns, Isabella and Albrecht, pressed him to be a court painter. He agreed on condition he could maintain his studios in Antwerp instead of Bruxelles. He had no desire to be a court courtier again. He might still have defied the Flemish commands and returned to Italy, except that he fell in love and married Isabella Brant.


Rubens, Self-Portrait with Isabella Brant

Treaties had blocked the Scheldt to sea commerce forever, and commercial power had shifted from Antwerp to Amsterdam. Only with Napoleon two centuries later would Antwerp's full port rights be restored.

The embargo on Antwerp sea trade was not total, but what little was permitted was strangled by procedures: at the mouth of the Scheldt all imports had to be transferred to Dutch boats and carried to the fleet stationed at Lillo, there to be examined by the enemy and taxed. Goods passed were carried to Antwerp in barges.

As the political tides capriciously changed, Antwerp either prospered reasonably well or plunged into economic doldrums. It was, however, still the Wall Street of Europe, a great center of exchange for raising money on diamonds or plate, and the most important mart for pictures and books of devotion.

Perhaps Rubens would have been content to live out his life as a painter, but he already had political contacts with men of influence — bishops, princes, prelates, diplomats, businessmen, ministers from Italy to Spain, a certain amount of valuable experience that had given him lessons in use and abuse of influence and pressure, and an indisputable cover: as a painter of uncontested fame he could be sent here and there ostensibly to paint but actually to spy, subvert, or negotiate.

He bore a sincere and passionate patriotism for a unified and tolerant Netherlands, the patriotism of the Antwerpers more than the narrower feelings of Bruxelles or the university town, Louvain.

Albrecht and Isabella soon called Peter Paul for secret diplomatic missions. Because of a truce with the Northern Provinces, a decade of ostensible peace began when Rubens settled back in Antwerp, but conditions were just cranking up for the start of a new Thirty Years War.

Outwardly the causes were religious, but at the base of all were economic rivalries and forces. It was a family struggle, too: Europe‘s ruling houses all seemed almost incestuously interrelated.

Albrecht and Isabella wished to see the Northern Provinces (Holland, House of Orange) restored to Bruxelles sovereignty but did not relish going to war again to gain them. They also preferred escape from Spanish domination and knew that resumed hostilities would bring Spanish more intervention.

Such intervention was quite impossible to prevent anyhow: the provisions under which Spanish Netherlands had been given by Philip II to Isabella and Albrecht required that they revert to Spain if the couple had no children.

They had none.


Rubens, Philip II of Spain Berating William the Silent, Prince of Orange

In Spain, King Philip III, Isabella’s half-brother, was willing to extend the truces. He demanded that the Dutch restore free access to the Scheldt. Overriding violent objections from Amsterdam, the Dutch might have met this price, but Philip added a demand: they must withdraw from the lucrative East and West Indies. That was too much.

During the abortive negotiations, Philip III died and was succeeded by his son, Philip IV, but nothing changed, except that just then up in Belgium Duke Albrecht died. Archduchess Isabella was left as the sole ruler of her country.

Philip IV promptly dispatched his Spanish troops — and over them an Italian commanding general, Ambrogio Spinola, in Rubens’s words, “the most prudent and sagacious man I have ever known” to occupy her lands.

Poor Isabella! From her Coudenborg Palace she needed to keep tabs on Olivares in Madrid, Buckingham in London, and Richelieu in Paris. Small wonder she needed the diplomatic genius of Rubens to tell her what was going on. Thus again Peter Paul was hauled into the vortex of Europe’s deepest machinations.

Feelings in France towards the Netherlands questions were unstable. So Isabella gave Rubens an exit visa so he could go to Paris to take charge of decorating the new Luxembourg Palace. Marie de’Medici, whose proxy wedding he had attended with Vincenzo, too, was now a widow. Henry IV had been assassinated.

From Isabella Rubens delivered a small dog wearing a necklace of 24 enameled plates.

Rubens carried out a series of 22 huge allegorical paintings depicting Marie’s life. Much of the work actually was done in his Antwerp studio. The queen's advisor, the Abbe of St. Ambroise, publicly declared, “Two painters of Italy could not carry out in ten years what Rubens would do in four.”

During the period the artist was in constant and intimate contact with Marie, but, the lesson of his father in his mind, he fell into no compromising situation. While he was readily accepted in the French intellectual community, Cardinal Richelieu knew he was a political emissary from Spanish Netherlands.

In order to build up the weak French monarchy, Richelieu was undermining Habsburg influence by every means possible. He secretly subsidized Protestant powers and made treaties with England, Denmark, and even the Dutch Republic. So Rubens was constantly overwhelmed by secret directives to find out what was going on and to work for peace between the two Low Country kingdoms.

Intrigue made use of many people. Rubens met and exploited Jacques Fauguières of Antwerp, an adventurous landscapist who traveled widely in Italy and Germany and became the chamberlain of France’s Louis XIII. He was engaged to paint backgrounds for some of Rubens’s Luxembourg series, and it is quite likely Fauguières painted a few clandestine “Rubens” himself.

He was useful as an informant, but he was difficult to handle because he had an irascible temper — and always kept a sharp sword on his easels!

Fahry Peiresc, whom Rubens had met in Padua, a nobleman from Aix, became his closest friend. He had good inside sources in Paris. The agent for both men was an engraver from Antwerp, one Melchior Tavernier, "Dealer and Printer in Ordinary to the King,” who was close to Richelieu By selling prints and engravings, he had his own valuable entrees.

At one time to cut down on Rubens’s influence while he was out of Paris, rumor was spread that he was dead. Peiresse said “ ... that Pearl of Honor ... there was not a more amiable soul in the world than Rubens.”

Efforts had been made to mate Charles I of England with the sister of Philip IV of Spain, but these negotiations failed. So Charles decided he could lie contentedly with France’s Princess Henrietta Maria — no sacrifice could be too great for country. The wedding was to be celebrated by proxy in Paris. The Duke of Buckingham, the favorite of King Charles, came to Paris to escort the virgin bride back to London.

Under the ruse of portrait painting, Rubens arranged meetings with Buckingham and urged upon him the wisdom of a Dutch reconciliation. Incompetent, capricious, arrogant, narcissistic, the duke was called “the most beautiful man in England." But the art-loving duke yearned for a hot war with Spain.

Buckingham also tried to devise a scheme to steal the Mona Lisa. But he yielded to Ruben’s adroit arguments to continue in negotiation with Spain through Rubens.

The duke had working for hin another painter-spy, a Flemish intriguer of less rigorous honesty named Balthasar Gerbier, who also bought and sold art when he wasn't playing or painting credible miniatures. Gerbier traveled about Holland buying pictures for Buckingham’s collection.

No sooner was Rubens back in Antwerp than Isabella and friends won military victory at Breda, and the opposition, playing for time, let her know that negotiations might be possible. Off Peter Paul went diplomatically again ... but Buckingham’s fleet attacked Cadiz, and an England-Northern Provinces compact against Spain was sealed.


Rubens, The Duke of Buckingham

However disconsolate Rubens felt over the renewal of hostilities — a depression made worse by the death of his wife from the plague that swept Antwerp — he did not fade away from diplomatic involvement. Channels with England were still open.

Gerbier arranged for Rubens to sell his large collection of statues, coins, antiquities, and gems to Buckingham for 100,000 florins. Rubens threw thirteen of his paintings into the bargain.

Rubens paid ten percent of this to an agent in England for the King of Sweden — sales commission, a payoff, or a bribe?

The artist certainly did not need the money, but he did need cover to see Buckingham again to kick around ideas for restoring Anglo-Spanish peace.

Isabella and General Spinola wanted peace, but the Spanish king certainly did not. (Spinola often remarked that Rubens had so many talents that painting seemed the least of them.) Rubens believed peace overtures would have to come from England.

Conditions in Antwerp were desperate. While the Spanish did win land battles, the Dutch tightened their control of the sea. Unemployment was widespread — except in the Rubens factory — and grass grew in Antwerp’s deserted streets.

In 1627 Rubens obtained a passport to go to Holland to defend his right as an artist against the fraudulent production of unauthorized engravings of his work. The cover permitted him to see Gerbier and to renew contact with his old friend Dudley Carleton, the English ambassador to the Hague.

Diplomatically the trip was a failure.

Interestingly, in this same year the impoverished Vincenzo II was forced to sell his entire Mantua art collection to King Charles in England, one of the largest art transactions in history. With it went the innumerable copies done by Rubens and other artists.

One more year — and Richelieu found himself overwhelmed with the Protestant revolt at home. He quickly smoked a peace pipe with Spain, but Philip IV nonetheless wasted no trust on the cardinal. Since Rubens was the expert on England, Philip summoned him to Madrid, where Rubens negotiated with his left hand and copied Titian with his right.

Pachecco says Rubens at this time copied all 70 Titians in the royal palace. He was always eager to discover secrets of his craft, and the way to do so was to pit his wits against the original creator and match his achievement.

(When Rubens died, many of his copies painted in Italy and Spain were found in his home but cannot now be traced. His collection is known to have contained thirty of the replicas of Titian he painted and ten other pictures actually attributed to Titian. Some of the Rubens copies must hang here and there in the world wrongfully attributed to the Italian master.)

The political story gets stickier — but is still relevant.

Rubens expounded his views first to Gaspar de Guzman, the Count of Olivares, and then to King Philip IV. Gerbier materialized — and then came news Buckingham had been assassinated. (His widow subsequently disposed of much of the Buckingham art collection on the Antwerp Friday Market.)

The Dutch whipped the Spanish fleet off Cuba. Then the Protestants and the English in La Rochelle capitulated to Richelieu, and the Huguenot war was over. France’s alliance with Spain became excess baggage. For Spain, peace with England was necessary, but the idle young king blindly followed a corrupt administration dominated by the psychotic, death-wishing Olivares, who frequently lay down in a coffin surrounded by monks chanting De Profundis.

After six months Philip decided — really too late — to send Rubens as head of a peace mission to London. Because Peter Paul was not of the nobility, the haughty Spaniards sent him off officially as Isabella’s envoy and as secretary to the Royal Council, a title manufactured for Rubens in the best public relations fashion.

As a mark of personal esteem, however, Philip IV gave Rubens a ring worth 2000 ducats.

Rubens made the trip via Bruxelles and Antwerp. He had to gather intelligence from Isabella, needed to check up on the work of all his painters, to make sure they were executing in the Rubens manner, to retouch various canvases, and to sign his name in appropriate places.

In England he got on well with King Charles and was welcomed as a renowned painter, but was driven to the best of his wits by the opposition of ambassadors from France, Holland, and Venice, all of whom were anxious to prevent reconciliation.

King Charles agreed with Rubens to make peace with Spain — but he was then confronted by Albert Joachim, the Dutch ambassador, and for the first time he learned just how implacable was Holland’s hatred for Spain. Reunification of the 17 provinces would only be on Holland’s terms. His efforts were of little use.

England and Spain would cease war, and that was a brilliant diplomatic success; yet Rubens left without a reunification treaty ... but not without the esteem of England. Cambridge bestowed on him a Master of Arts, and King Charles knighted him and gave him a costly sword, ring, and diamond hatband.

Rubens was no sooner home than he was called to France by Dowager Marie de Médici (French spelling) and caught once more by his old and unfortunate loyalty in her abortive efforts to depose her son from the French throne, Richelieu with him. Exiled, she never ceased plotting. Ironically, she died in Cologne in the way house that had sheltered Marie Pypelinex, Rubens’s mother.

Cardinal Richelieu was contemptuous of Rubens’s meddling but not vindictive. Permitted to return to Belgium, Rubens continued in secret negotiations on behalf of Isabella for reunification until she died in 1633.

Since there was no Albrecht-Isabella heir to wear the tiara, the younger brother of Philip IV, ex-Cardinal Ferdinand, was named to take his aunt's place as the Belgian head of state. For his Day of Joyous Entry into the city, the Antwerp Town Council decreed that festivities should exceed those thrown for Albrecht and Isabella 35 years earlier.

The direction and planning, particularly of the theaters and triumphal arches, were given to Rubens. Depictions, dramatic and plastic, not only honored Ferdinand but called his attention to the plight of blockaded Antwerp.

Fireworks were shot off from the cathedral tower to a fanfare of trumpets and cannon as the procession moved from display to display, with a troupe of musicians at each.

After the processions each night there was Rubenesque eating and drinking, although Peter Paul was ill abed. Ferdinand had such a great time he concluded, happily perhaps, “The people here live like beasts.”

Rubens’s eight-day extravaganza was characteristically prodigious and way over budget.

Released from incessant diplomatic maneuvering, Rubens could turn much of his energies for his remaining six of seven years painting.

A few months after returning from England he married a beautiful teenage girl, Helene Froment, whose lush, robust, firm, translucent, rosy flesh he immortalized.


Rubens, Portrait of Helene Froument

Even so, suffering from gout, he considered himself old and beyond creative capacity. But his studio was busy. Eight months after he died, in his 63rd year, he became a father for the last time.

So great and widespread had grown Rubens reputation, so admired was his art, that he became more copied, counterfeited, imitated, plagiarised, and faked than any artist in history until that time. Sometimes he was guilty of forgery of his own works.

In Memoires published in 1729, Campo Weijermann painted a grim but undoubtedly true picture: “Thousands of pictures have been painted from engravings by Rubens and still are today, by the Friday Market men of Antwerp, who produce paintings as a sow gives birth to a litter of pigs, and where bogus canvases are passed off as the genuine work of Rubens. These outrageous fakes are still in circulation among a host of dealers, who are leading a comfortable, lazy life of ease as a result of the fictitious use of that great master’s name.”


Copyright © 2019 by Lawrence Jeppson Printed from NauvooTimes.com