The Four Philosophers, Rubens stands at left, behind his brother Philip, who sits at a table with Justus Lipsius (wearing the fur collar) and Jan van den Wouvere, a family friend
Today, Peter Paul Rubens is celebrated as the Old Master with a taste for canvasses grand in scale and extravagant in splendor — a man who liked to work big, in all senses of that word. Rubens, no doubt, enjoyed painting large pictures with large themes and large women. These works, however, have an unfortunate tendency to occlude his many other accomplishments. Rubens was a child of the baroque, but a renaissance man, and one of the most accomplished in history. Though he considered painting to be his true calling — he called it his “dolcissima professione
” — it was actually just one of his several careers. In his day, Rubens was also revered as a diplomat, an architect, a classical scholar, and even a graphic designer, though there was really no such professional designation at the time. Indeed, he was as comfortable working at the small scale of the printed page as he was on a massive series of paintings destined for a royal palace.
For Rubens and his contemporaries, a certain broad diversity of knowledge was considered a necessity. Expertise in the natural sciences, politics, religion, and history were understood to be mutually informative aspects of a single world system. In our own modern age of specialization, there is an unfortunate tendency to label this kind of general interest as dilettantism. In graphic design, of course, it remains useful. As Michael Bierut has written on this very site
, “the more things you’re interested in, the better your work will be.”
Most of Rubens’s work as a graphic designer was conducted in the service of the publishing industry: he created elaborate title page designs, illustrations for books, and what today we might call “identities” for publishing houses. This was highly unusual. While earlier figures like Durer
had made the occasional woodcut illustration, no other major artist had worked for the publishing industry with anything close to the frequency of Rubens.
Why did Rubens take up this putatively “minor” commercial art when he had so much else on his plate? Beyond his own broad field of interest, the most obvious answer is that Rubens simply loved books. He read them, wrote them, collected them, and painted them in his pictures. They were surely an inspiration to him: his works are saturated with literary references. Rubens was a man of letters, and liked to associate with others of a similar erudition. In a famous group portrait, he appears with his brother, a noted scholar, and the great philosopher Justus Lipsius, their mentor, behind a table laden with books.