Sir Peter Paul Rubens was a Flemish Baroque painter, and a proponent of an extravagant Baroque style that emphasised movement, colour, and sensuality. He is well-known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, and history paintings of mythological and allegorical subjects. In addition to running a large studio in Antwerp that produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe, Rubens was a classically educated humanist scholar, art collector, and diplomat who was knighted by both Philip IV, King of Spain, and Charles I, King of England.
In 1621, the Queen Mother of France, Marie de' Medici, commissioned Rubens to paint two large allegorical cycles celebrating her life and the life of her late husband, Henry IV, for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. The Marie de' Medici cycle (now in the Louvre) was installed in 1625, and although he began work on the second series it was never completed. Marie was exiled from France in 1630 by her son, Louis XIII, and died in 1642 in the same house in Cologne where Rubens had lived as a child.
After the end of the Twelve Years' Truce in 1621, the Spanish Habsburg rulers entrusted Rubens with a number of diplomatic missions. In 1624 the French ambassador wrote from Brussels: "Rubens is here to take the likeness of the prince of Poland, by order of the infanta." Between 1627 and 1630, Rubens's diplomatic career was particularly active, and he moved between the courts of Spain and England in an attempt to bring peace between the Spanish Netherlands and the United Provinces. He also made several trips to the northern Netherlands as both an artist and a diplomat. At the courts he sometimes encountered the attitude that courtiers should not use their hands in any art or trade, but he was also received as a gentleman by many. It was during this period that Rubens was twice knighted, first by Philip IV of Spain in 1624, and then by Charles I of England in 1630. He was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Cambridge University in 1629. Rubens was in Madrid for eight months in 1628–1629. In addition to diplomatic negotiations, he executed several important works for Philip IV and private patrons. He also began a renewed study of Titian's paintings, copying numerous works including the Madrid Fall of Man. During this stay, he befriended the court painter Diego Velázquez and the two planned to travel to Italy together the following year. Rubens, however, returned to Antwerp and Velázquez made the journey without him. His stay in Antwerp was brief, and he soon travelled on to London where he remained until April 1630. An important work from this period is the Allegory of Peace and War. It illustrates the artist's strong concern for peace, and was given to Charles I as a gift. While Rubens's international reputation with collectors and nobility abroad continued to grow during this decade, he and his workshop also continued to paint monumental paintings for local patrons in Antwerp. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary for the Cathedral of Antwerp is one prominent example.
Rubens's last decade was spent in and around Antwerp. Major works for foreign patrons still occupied him, such as the ceiling paintings for the Banqueting House at Inigo Jones's Palace of Whitehall, but he also explored more personal artistic directions. In 1630, four years after the death of his first wife, the 53-year-old painter married 16-year-old Hélène Fourment. Hélène inspired the voluptuous figures in many of his paintings from the 1630s, including The Feast of Venus, The Three Graces and The Judgment of Paris. In the latter painting, which was made for the Spanish court, the artist's young wife was recognized by viewers in the figure of Venus. In an intimate portrait of her, Hélène Fourment in a Fur Wrap, also known as Het Pelsken, Rubens's wife is even partially modelled after classical sculptures of the Venus Pudica,...