Most everyone knows that Peter Paul Rubens was a great artist, the Old Master who most famously enjoyed painting ladies of ample proportion. (The euphemism “Rubensesque” dates to a 1913 story in the Canadian women’s magazine Maclean’s — the editors considered his taste “eccentric.”) It is often and unfortunately forgotten that Rubens lived a double life as a spy and diplomat, and this is the subject of my forthcoming book, Master of Shadows.
In what I consider a rather satisfying bit of parallelism, an essay adapted from that book appears today in the Wall Street Journal on the same day that Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize is the paper’s lead story. Rubens was a pragmatic, moderate man whose success as a diplomat was predicated on a combination of the high esteem in which he was held internationally and by his own great intelligence. Whatever one thinks about the timing of the Nobel, or of Obama generally, it’s hard to deny he shares these characteristics with Rubens.
But I’d like to think the artist can serve as a fine model for the president, or any diplomat practicing today. He was a serious and dedicated public servant, a master of what we now call “realpolitiks.” His world, like ours, was faced with intractable conflicts, and he was tireless in his efforts to resolve them. The Low Countries, then, was a land divided by sectarian violence, and his own Flemish homeland was ruled by a grossly negligent foreign occupier. (In the 16th century, Antwerp was almost a proto-Baghdad, with a full-scale Green Zone avant le lettre.)
Rubens was no revolutionary. He worked within the power structures of his day to shift policy and push ideologically opposed leaders toward reconciliation. There was never a more savvy negotiator, whether he was bargaining for European peace or setting the price on one of his very expensive canvasses. He was a peaceful man but believed in the use of military force, even its pre-emptive use, but in drastic situations only. Rubens had more than one contemporary who considered him as fine a statesman as he was an artist, and that was saying something, because in that field he was, indisputably, the tops.
“I should like the whole world to be in peace, that we might live in a golden age instead of an age of iron,” he wrote, and those words seem as applicable today as they did then.
Peter Paul Rubens, Diplomat [WSJ]
Mark Lamster is the author of Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) and writes on the arts and culture for many newspapers and magazines. He lives in Brooklyn.
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