Master of Shadows The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens by Mark Lamster

I read this for the Fort Worth Kimball Museum’s book club. I knew next to nothing about 17th century history – just a little about the Stuarts, Cromwell, and the Great Fire – but not European doings. Now I know way more than I ever wanted. Some of it little came in handy when I was teaching early American literature this summer. One never knows what random information one may pick up that might come in handy at the most unexpected times.

The audience for this book would, I think, be readers who want to know more about political history and art history. It is not for the casual reader; it is not light reading. Also, I have the paperback edition with few illustrations – all in black and white. I don’t know whether the hardback would have more painting, and in color. I was lucky enough to have Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama, which is chock full of Ruben’s paintings mentioned in Master of Shadows.

I was also relatively unfamiliar with Rubens. I knew the name, of course, but his paintings are not as ubiquitous as are those of Monet, Rembrandt, Botticelli, or Munch. Chances are, you, like myself, are much better acquainted with the adjective than the work of the painter. Few people can cite a Rubens painting by name, but “Rubenesque” has become a synonym for any amply proportioned female. Rubens has fallen out of style and is now thought of as an Old World master of a painting style—symbolic representation, heavy on Greek and biblical references—that we now think of as musty and antiquated. High Baroque, the style in which he painted, is nowadays synonymous with pointless complexity. After all, how many modern museum-strollers have the time to invest in all of the reference books needed to make sense of his allegories? But despite the one-dimensionality associated with the painter’s name, here’s a book that puts Rubens in a whole other frame.

Peter Paul Rubens got more done in one day than most of us get done in a lifetime. Rubens wasn’t content with merely being, conceivably, the world’s greatest painter during his lifetime. Instead, he filled his resume with an impressive array of occupations. Like superspy, for one—in addition to treaty negotiator, statesman, wealthy landowner, antiquities dealer, and factory head.

Rubens the politico-spy is just one of his many pursuits that surface in Master of Shadows, but it’s perhaps the least likely, given what was regarded as an artist’s lack of prospects when it came to upward mobility in the 16th and 17th centuries. Painters had a relative low status in society and were viewed as manual laborers because they worked with their hands. They could, possibly, earn a fortune. Rubens certainly did, with many royal and ecclesiastical commissions, which he met, with the assistance of helpers and students executing large portions of the paintings that bore his name. Painters were rarely drafted into diplomatic service, despite what Mark Lamster cites as the most natural cover: they had the ear of kings, queens, dukes, and assorted courtiers.

Rubens was eventually put on military salary by the Spanish crown (which had dominion over his native Antwerp). He was handsome, affable, quick-witted, and a natural salesman and he knew when to keep his mouth shut. Lamster calls him “the perfect spy.” There’s no doubt that Rubens’s undertakings were useful to Europe’s volatile politics. Intrigue was everywhere, with one clandestine deal being canceled out by another, and a third in place as a fall-back.

Rubens worked primarily as an operative for the Spanish crown, which was engaged in a prolonged war with the emerging Dutch republic, a conflict that engulfed all of Europe’s powers and involved the countries’ colonies. Rubens believed he could resolve this perpetual war, and he devoted several years of his life to this effort, risking all that he had achieved. He would arrange for a peace between Spain and England, with the expectation that England would then force its Dutch ally to compromise with Spain. It was a shrewd bit of strategic thinking, but it would not work unless Rubens could convince England and Spain, traditional enemies, to come to terms. Ultimately, Rubens did not succeed, although he was knighted by both Philip IV, King of Spain, and Charles I, King of England. One can see the sources of conflict in Europe that extend even to the 21st century. Lamster does a valuable job of sorting out the tangled politics of the Low Countries during what was a violent, complex, and energetic era. I was never entirely clear exactly what was going on, but I suspect the participants weren’t either.

Rubens was able to balance affairs of state with his personal business interests. He was not an agitator, at least externally; repeatedly browbeaten by various members of the nobility, the painter/spy worked ceaselessly to please, winning the favor of kings (such as Spain’s Philip IV) who had previously held his lack of a birthright against him.

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.

We see Rubens’s political concerns feeding into his art, yielding it greater narrative scope. His early work evolved into a style where the relationship between metaphor and meaning became more direct. He had to make sure that his patrons understood precisely what his art was conveying. Satisfying human vanity went a long way in Rubens’s political career, and visualizing a king as a metaphorical god of justice and happiness, beloved of his flock, made for a favorable frame of mind when a favor was needed.

Mark Lamster’s affection for his subject is so complete and his research is so thorough that “Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens” manages to be generally engaging, instructive and thought-provoking. My occasional impatience arose, undoubtedly, from my overall lack of interest and experience with 17th century European history.

Lamster demonstrates the relationship between Rubens’ diplomatic assignments and his important artistic commissions. The author also reveals Rubens to be an attractive and likable man who clearly interested and charmed those around him.

Lamster provides a portrait of a major painter at a time when artists were still fully integrated into the intellectual, social and political affairs of their time. For Ruben, the artist was very much a man of affairs — well-educated, -traveled and -schooled in the social graces. Flemish painters, like their Italian counterparts, were members of respectable, even prestigious guilds. It’s not hard to see how a man as self-possessed and as socially gifted as Rubens could find a role in high-level diplomacy.

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