What can a modern president with modern problems learn from an artist most famous for painting images of amply proportioned women some four centuries ago? More than you might think, actually. The painter Peter Paul Rubens has a good deal in common with Barack Obama, and the Old Master's life offers lessons that the president might well find instructive. Though the fact is largely forgotten today, Rubens had a distinguished second career as a diplomat and covert agent. (This life is the subject of my new book, Master of Shadows.) Rubens was a political moderate and pragmatic thinker at a time of great ideological polarization, a man who risked all that he had achieved in life toward the reconciliation of a land divided against itself. He was savvy when it came to leveraging his celebrity for political gain, and an unyielding negotiator, whether he was bargaining for European peace of setting the price on one of his very expensive canvasses.
It is something of a convention to think of the artist as dissolute figure prone to self-destruction; Caravaggio, Van Gogh, and Pollock all fit this stereotype. Rubens does not. He was a gentleman and a scholar who built for himself a happy domestic life and an immense personal fortune. It was his reputation as a man of tact and discretion, and the proximity to monarchs and statesmen across Europe achieved through his painting, that to led to his conscription into political service. His art could always serve as a useful cover for his work as a diplomat and clandestine agent.
Rubens entered politics in the midst of the wars of the Counter-Reformation. His native Flanders, a Spanish dependency, was then the theater of battle in a decades-long conflict between Spain and the nascent Dutch republic -- the so-called Eighty Years War. Rubens spent most of his diplomatic career working to broker an end to that seemingly intractable conflict. He was relentless in these efforts, even when the parties seemed most deeply divided. The frequency and suddenness with which political fortune could reverse itself, he thought, demanded constant vigilance and engagement. Certainly, the idea that one should not negotiate with one's enemies would have been anathema to him; the maintenance of such contacts was one of the essential principles of diplomatic practice at the time. Cardinal Richelieu, the French statesman who was one of Rubens's most persistent adversaries, devoted an entire chapter of his influential Testament Politique to the utility of continuous negotiations. "I may venture to say boldly," he wrote, "that to negotiate without ceasing, openly or secretly, in all places...is what is absolutely necessary for the good and welfare of States."
Long before the idea became a commonplace, Rubens understood that the interests of the entire international community were bound together. He understood the Europe of his day not as an assemblage of autonomous states, but as a "chain of confederations" united by the bonds of religion, geography, blood, history, and commerce. Today, that metaphor has become a physical reality. The European Union, based in the artist's Belgian homeland, seems even in its imperfections a fulfillment of his vision of a continent at peace, administered by policy makers at least theoretically accountable for their actions.
Rubens was hardly naïve about the commercial, religious, and political forces pulling against the fragile stability of international community. He was deeply skeptical of all political bodies, noting how often politicians would publicly promise one thing only to "act quite contrary" to their promises when sequestered behind closed doors. But those who ruled absolutely were even more dangerous. "Surely it would be better if these young men who govern the world today were willing to maintain friendly relations with one another instead of throwing all Christendom into unrest by their caprices," he wrote. He had little faith in alliances of convenience and saw how easily regional conflict could metastasize into global calamity. But he also knew that international bonds represented an opportunity for a pragmatic diplomat; Relationships could be leveraged and resources deployed to contain conflicts and spread peace among nations united by mutual interest. It was that vision that drew him into political affairs, and kept him engaged even when forces aligned against him. "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. In his art and in his diplomatic work, he gave color to that dream.
Of course there were times, and especially toward the end of his life, when the world seemed altogether resistant to his good intentions. At those moments, Rubens could rely on the stoicism that served him as a philosophical bulwark at times of difficulty. And when things became truly bad, he could always wash his hands of politics and retire to the pleasures of his studio. Which suggests one final lesson for the current president. Already, he's proven himself a titan of the bestseller lists. Perhaps now is the time to start taking notes on that novel he's always dreamed about -- a Washington roman-a-clef might be just the ticket. I'm sure he's got the material.