History Today, Volume:10 Issue: 12 (1960)
On Whit Monday 1629, Peter Paul Rubens, the most famous painter in Europe, disembarked at Dover from His Majesty’s ship Adventure and proceeded immediately towards London. He remained in England until the middle of the following March, a period of nearly ten months, during which he completed the preliminary negotiations for a treaty of peace and friendship between King Charles I and King Philip IV of Spain. He also visited the finest collections of paintings in the country, was lavishly entertained by the courtiers and ministers of King Charles, painted two or three original works and wrote a great number of official despatches and private letters, full of lively comment on the English scene.
The purpose of his visit was diplomatic. The Archduchess Isabella, daughter of Philip II, and ruler of the Spanish Netherlands, had shown her usual tact in selecting her Court-painter and trusted confidant for the delicate mission of approaching King Charles I, whose knowledge and judgment of painting was admitted to be much greater than his knowledge and judgment of foreign affairs. Her choice had caused some eyebrow-raising in Madrid, where her nephew, King Philip IV, felt that a painter was not a sufficiently aristocratic representative for the Crown of Spain. The problem was settled by giving Rubens authority only to smooth out the way for a treaty to be completed by a noble ambassador. He was also given the nominal office of Secretary to King Philip’s Privy Council, to invest him with a more official appearance. It was not that King Philip undervalued Rubens: he had a high respect for him, both as a painter and a man, and at an earlier time had given him a grant of arms; but, in the formal relations between European sovereigns, the Spanish King demanded a respect for his emissaries that a painter might not command. King Philip need have had no fears about Rubens. He was at this time fifty-two years old, an experienced, widely travelled and confident man of the world, valued in most of the Courts of Europe as a superb and prolific painter and as an expert on all aesthetic questions: a man who shone in any society and counted among his friends some of the most remarkable men and women of Europe.