Peter Paul Rubens
The Life of Marie de' Medici
Portrait of Marie de' Medici. c. 1622. Oil on canvas, 130 x 108 cm. Museo del
Image Source: Olga's Gallery
It was in January of 1622 that Marie de’ Medici, the widow of King Henri IV of
France, first summoned the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens to Paris. She was
looking to decorate her new residence, the Palais de Luxembourg (designed by
Salomon de Brosse on the site of the hôtel of the Duke of Luxembourg a few years
earlier in 1620), with two cycles of paintings. The first cycle was to illustrate events
from her own life while the second would illustrate events from the life of her
Unfortunately for Rubens, the life of Marie de’ Medici was filled with overly
melodramatic events, though none of these were particularly interesting. Born in
Florence on April 26, 1573, the youngest daughter of Francesco I, Grand Duke of
Tuscany and Johanna, Archduchess of Austria, Marie was considered to be a
"handsome, vulgar, and heartless woman" (Bertram 104). Her uncle Ferdinando I
de’ Medici, who had succeeded to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany following the death
of her father in 1587, paid for her marriage to King Henri IV. This came in the
form of six hundred thousand crowns, thus buying for her the Queenship of
After their marriage in 1600 (Henri’s second following his divorce to Marguerite
de Valois), "everything went wrong and their life became hell" (Avermaete 106). It
was a quarrelsome and unhappy arrangement, encouraged constantly by the King’s
vindictive and jealous mistress, Henriette d’Entragues. It is possible that Marie
would have been a content and good-natured wife, but the daily bereavement she
received from Henriette was enough to make her a sour, cold, and hateful woman.
"At times there were open quarrels. The Italian woman knew how to give as well as
take, and could be even more high and mighty than her King. His words may have
been cutting, but she had a choice vocabulary of crude ones" (Thuillier 16). Their
marriage was short-lived, however, for on May 14, 1610, the King was stabbed to
death in the Rue de la Ferronerie in Paris. A mere two and a half hours after his
assassination, Marie was recognized by the Parisian Parliament as the new Regent
The Dauphin, Louis XIII, had been born on September 27, 1601, and was thus
only nine-years-old at the time of his father’s death. Marie would reign as Regent
from 1610 until 1617, at which time Louis banished her for five years “in the
wilderness,” otherwise known as the château of Blois. She was allowed to return to
Paris with the aide of the Abbé de Luçon, later to become her enemy, Cardinal
Richelieu, and she contented herself with the newly completed Palais du
Luxembourg and its decoration. It can be assumed, however, that her desire to
commemorate her life in such an extravagant way must have been centered around
hidden motives. To be sure, she felt the need to reaffirm her political and/or her
symbolic strength in the French monarchy, as she had always felt slighted by her
son due to his abrupt termination of her Regency (which she had anticipated lasting
quite a bit longer than it actually did). Through the commission itself as well as the
final product, the Queen was able to establish herself as a valued member of the
royal family, despite her permanent banishment in July 1631 to Compiegne.
Rubens' first visit to Paris would last for six weeks, during which time he was
lodged near the Pont Neuf on the Quai Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois. The visit was
only intended to be a preliminary discussion of the details of the commission, but
Rubens kept himself busy with a variety of activities. Among these, he inspected the
palace where the cycle was to be displayed and painted portraits of Marie and Anne
of Austria, whom Louis XIII had married at the age of fourteen in 1615. The
Queen's advisor, Claude Maugis, Abbé de Saint-Ambroise, led the negotiations for
the cycle and was an ardent supporter of Rubens' ability to carry out such an
enormous task. "He publicly declared that 'two painters of Italy would not carry
out in ten years what Rubens would do in four, and would not even think of
undertaking pictures of the necessary size'" (White 56). It was decided and agreed
by all parties that Rubens would complete the two cycles of paintings (thus the
decoration of two full galleries in the Palais du Luxembourg) for a price of twenty
thousand crowns. The cycle of the Life of Henri IV was never undertaken, though
the Life of Marie de' Medici was completed in full. There were twenty-four
paintings in all, including portraits of the Queen and her parents. The other
paintings are as follows: The Destiny of Marie, The Birth of Marie, The Education
of Marie, The Presentation of the Portrait, The Marriage by Proxy, The
Debarkation at Marseilles, The Entry into Lyons, The Birth of the Dauphin, The
Consignment of the Regency, The Coronation of the Queen, The Death of Henri IV
and the Proclamation of the Regency, The Council of the Gods, The Triumph at
Juliers, The Exchange of Princesses, The Felicity of the Regency, The Coming of
Age of Louis XIII, The Escape from Blois, The Treaty of Angoulême, The
Conclusion of the Peace, The Full Reconciliation, and The Triumph of Truth.
Indeed, the commission was to be one of the most difficult that Rubens would ever
undertake, as he not only had to conform to extravagant spatial requirements, but
he was also painting the cycle in a tense political arena for an uncompromising
monarch. "Apart from these difficulties of poor subject and large space, Rubens
had to suppress much in the life of Maria so that he might not offend her, and so to
handle what he selected that he might not offend the King. Realism, in other words,
would have been most dangerous" (Bertram 110).
Therefore, how did Rubens go about representing the rather unfascinating and
extremely complicated life of such an infamous Queen? In what ways was he able to
incorporate both touchy and hurtful subjects into the overall celebration of her
existence? To what limits did he stretch his imagination in order to envison
extravagant depictions of mundane events over and over? It is indeed true that
"considerable imagination, aided by an abundant use of classical allegory, was
necessary to present the quarrelsome heroine as the embodiment of all the virtues"
(White 56-57). Therefore, in almost all of the paintings that make up the cycle, the
Queen is surrounded by allegorical figures as well as those from ancient mythology.
"The gods, goddesses, and other allegorical figures who accompany the queen
throughout the different events of her life raise her into a sort of empyrean situated
somewhere between earth and sky. Thus rather humdrum facts take on the aspect
of an apotheosis, in perfect accord with the idea of 'royalty by divine grace'"
(Badouin 183). The final result of the cycle was an intentional and successful façade
that disguised the true historical facts.
In examining seven of the twenty-four paintings in the cycle, one is able to best
understand the very unique ways in which Rubens communicated the life of the
difficult, complicated, but extremely fascinating Marie de' Medici.
The Destiny of Marie de' Medici. 1622-1625. Oil on canvas, 12' 11 1/8" x 5' 1".
Musée du Louvre, Paris.
The Triumph of Truth. 1622-1625. Oil on canvas, 12' 11 1/8" x 4' 11". Musée du
Image Sources: Olga's Gallery
These are the first and last paintings in the cycle (excluding the three portraits of
Marie and her parents). In The Destiny of Marie de' Medici, Rubens has depicted
the Fates, spinning the destiny of the unborn Queen while Zeus and his wife Hera
watch from above. The Fates, otherwise known as the three Moirae, were female
deities who supervised fate rather than determined it. The daughters of Zeus and
Themis, they included Clotho (who spun the thread), Lachesis (who measured the
length), and Atropos (who cut it). It is interesting to note here that the scissors of
Atropos were omitted in order to stress the privileged and immortal character of the
Queen's life. The Triumph of Truth is an ambitious end to the cycle, as it depicts
King Louis XIII and Marie finally reconciled and seated in the heavens. The King
presents a laurel wreath to his mother which surrounds two joined hands with a
heart above them. Rubens purposefully depicts Time uncovering Truth below the
pair, as the misunderstanding between Louis and Marie was due in part to false
reports from others.
The Education of Marie. 1622-1625. Oil on canvas, 12' 11 1/8" x 9' 8 1/8". Musée
du Louvre, Paris.
Image Source: http://sunsite.icm.edu.pl/cjackson/rubens/rubens46.jpg
The Education of Marie includes an abundance of allegorical and mythological
figures, who all aide in the schooling of the young Queen. To the left, Apollo (the
patron god of arts), Athena (the goddess of wisdom), and Hermes (the messenger of
the Olympian gods), teach her music, reading, and eloquence respectively. At the
same time, the three Graces (or Charities) are present at the right to offer her
beauty. As ancient Greek divinities for beauty, grace, and artistic expression, the
three sisters of the Graces included Euphrosyne, Aglaea, and Thalia.
The Debarkation at Marseilles. 1622-1625. Oil on canvas, 12' 11 1/8" x 9' 8 1/8".
Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Image Source: Web Gallery of Art
In The Debarkation at Marseilles, Marie is welcomed to her new home by a
personified France, wearing a helmet and a blue mantle with golden fleur-de-lis.
Above, Fame blows two horns to announce her arrival to the people of France
(including her future husband). Below, Neptune, three sirens, a sea-god, and a
triton help escort the future Queen to her new home. To the left, the arms of the
Medici can be seen above an arched structure, where a Knight of Malta stands in all
of his regalia. On a side note, Avermaete discusses an interesting idea that is
particularly present in this canvas. "He [Rubens] surrounded her [Marie de'
Medici] with such a wealth of appurtenances that at every moment she was very
nearly pushed into the background. Consider, for example, the 'Disembarkation at
Marseilles', where everyone has eyes only for the voluptuous Naiads, to the
disadvantage of the queen who is being received with open arms by France"
The Coronation of the Queen. 1622-1625. Oil on canvas, 12' 11 1/8" x 23' 10 1/4".
Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Image Source: http://cgfa.sunsite.dk/rubens/rubens2.htm
This painting is one of the few in the cycle that does not contain any mythological
or allegorical figures. It also is an accurate depiction of an historical event in the life
of the Queen, as the King had the Queen crowned at the basilica of Saint-Denis in
Paris to increase her authority on May 13, 1610 (the day before he was
The Death of Henri IV and The Proclamation of the Regency. 1622-1625. Oil on
canvas, 12' 11 1/8" x 23' 10 1/4". Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Image Source: Web Gallery of Art
In this painting, Rubens combines two subjects (related though they are) into one
scene. On the left, the King, assassinated by a madman, is lifted to the heavens by
Time where he is received into the arms of Zeus. To the right, the Queen is dressed
in mourning clothes and is seen seated on a throne. To her right stands the goddess
Athena, representing Prudence, and in the air a woman holds a rudder,
representing the Regency. The Queen accepts an orb, a symbol of government,
from the personification of France while the people kneel before her. This is an
appropriate example of the exaggeration of facts in the cycle. Rubens stresses the
idea that the Regency was offered to the Queen (the populace almost seem to be
begging her to accept the offer), though she actually claimed it for herself the same
day her husband was murdered.
The Council of the Gods. 1622-1625. Oil on canvas, 12' 11 1/8" x 23' 10 1/4".
Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Image Source: http://www.artunframed.com/rubens_3.htm
The Council of the Gods is one of the least understood of the paintings that make
up the cycle. It is meant to represent the conduct of the Queen and the great care
with which she oversees her Kingdom during her Regency. Thus, how she
overcomes the rebellions and the disorders of the State. However, it is difficult to
make out the subject matter of the work, as the scene is packed with a variety of
mythological figures. These include Apollo and Pallas, who combat and overcome
vices such as Discord, Hate, Fury, and Envy on the ground and Neptune, Pluto,
Saturn, Hermes, Pan, Flora, Hebe, Pomono, Venus, Mars, Zeus, Hera, Cupid, and
In the end, Rubens accomplished quite an amazing feat. He completed a total of
twenty-four enormous paintings in only three short years. He, unfortunately, did
not look back on the experience as a positive one. "In retrospect, in his own
country, Rubens was calmer but hardly less bitter, 'when I consider the trips I have
made to Paris, and the time I have spent there, without any special recompense, I
find that the work for the queen mother has been very unprofitable to me'" (White
62). Marie de' Medici, however, was overjoyed at the final product. But then again,
who wouldn't be? "Rubens was so kind to the queen, and adorned her with so
many imaginary graces, that Marie de Medici was beside herself with delight. That,
of course, is the way in which the great ones of this world want history to be
written" (Avermaete 107).
Avermaete, Roger. Rubens and his times. Cranbury, New Jersey: A.S. Barnes and
Baudouin, Frans. Pietro Pauolo Rubens. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977.
Bertram, Anthony. The Life of Sir Peter-Paul Rubens. London: Peter Davies, Ltd.,
Thuillier, Jacques. Rubens' Life of Marie de' Medici. New York: Harry N.
Abrams, Inc., 1967.
White, Christopher. Rubens and his world. London: Thames and Hudson, 1968.