Rubens was born into a prominent Antwerp family then living in Germany. His childhood was spent in Cologne, but following the death of his father in 1588, the family moved back to Antwerp. Rubens there received a thorough classical education and served for a time as a page at the court of the comtesse de Ligne, before training as a painter. His masters were Tobias Verhaecht, Adam van Noordt and Otto van Veen, and he became a master in the Antwerp painters’ guild in 1598.
In 1600 Rubens left for Italy and found employment at the court of Vincenzo I Gonzaga, duke of Mantua. He remained based in Italy until 1608, making a trip to Spain in 1603 and working not only in Mantua but also in Rome and Genoa as a painter of portraits and history subjects.
In 1608 he returned to Antwerp equipped with a profound knowledge of classical sculpture and the art of the Italian renaissance. On his return Rubens was appointed court painter to the archduke and archduchess Albert and Isabella in Brussels, although he continued to work in Antwerp where he received commissions notably for the large triptychs of the Raising of the cross and the Descent from the cross, painted in 1610-11 and 1612-14 respectively (both now in the Antwerp Cathedral).
By the 1620s Rubens had acquired an international reputation and received a sequence of major commissions for cycles of paintings and tapestry designs, the latter including the Life of Constantine series. Constantius appoints Constantine as his successor 1622 is one of 13 oil sketches from this series and was an important part of the process by which the artist designed his tapestries and communicated his requirements to other artists. In it we see the Emperor Constantinte on the left conferring leadership to his son Crispus. The presence of the sea god Neptune suggests that Crispus is assuming command of the fleet.
At the same time he also became active as a diplomat in the service of the archduchess. In this capacity he made trips to Madrid and London in 1628-30 to negotiate an Anglo-Spanish peace. In the last decade of his life, Rubens undertook fewer major commissions. In 1636-8 he undertook a huge series of mythological paintings for Philip IV of Spain destined for the decoration of the king’s hunting lodge, the Torre de la Parada, outside Madrid but these were probably largely executed by an efficient and well-organised workshop. Some of the most compelling works of Rubens’ last years are the landscapes and the portraits of his family, which are infused with a profound delight in nature and humanity.