"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

The Painter as a Spy



Mark Lamster’s second book was released this week. It is called Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens.  Dig this essay from the Wall Street Journal:

Today, Peter Paul Rubens is best remembered as the Old Master with a penchant for fleshy, pink nudes and baroque grandiosity. These perceptions suggest a man of unchecked libertinism, but Rubens was in fact a man of controlled appetites, with a modest disposition and a reputation for tact and discretion. Almost inevitably, given his proximity to monarchs and statesmen across Europe, he was conscripted into political service as a covert diplomat and spy; his artistic work could always provide cover for his clandestine activities.

Because we think of Rubens primarily as an artist, and because the political affairs of the 17th century are so remote, Rubens’s diplomatic career is neglected when it is not altogether forgotten. But a review of Rubens’s correspondence, along with other archival sources, suggests he played a central and active role in European statecraft. Indeed, many of his contemporaries considered him as skilled a diplomat as he was an artist, and he was then almost universally revered as a painter without rival.

Rubens worked primarily as an operative for the Spanish crown, which was engaged in a prolonged war with the nascent Dutch republic, an intractable conflict that had engulfed all of Europe’s powers and that extended fully around the globe. Rubens believed he could resolve this perpetual war, and he devoted several years of his life to this effort, risking all that he had achieved. His plan was triangular: he would arrange for a peace between Spain and England, with the expectation that England would then force its Dutch ally to compromise with Spain. It was a savvy bit of strategic thinking, but it would not work unless Rubens could convince England and Spain, traditional enemies, to come to terms.

Mark, known around these parts as the co-founder of YFSF, is nothing if not versatile and wildly talented.


I received my copy of the book this morning and it is stunningly handsome. Once the baseball season is over it’s at the top of my reading list. Congrats to Mark on the publication of what looks to be a terrific book. What an accomplishment, man. We’re proud to know him, count him as a friend, and wish him nothing but success.

Maybe one day he’ll post a picture of the 1975 Yankees bumper sticker he once showed me.

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1 Yankee Mama   ~  Oct 21, 2009 4:16 pm

Back in the 80's, a friend and I, after ingesting substances that one did in that epoch, went to the Met to relish in the art. One of the artists that made an impression as having "it" was Rubens. His use of light was spiritual or so says a screwy college kid.

I'm blown away that he was also a tactical diplomat and spy. It just goes to show you.....

2 Alex Belth   ~  Oct 21, 2009 4:27 pm

shroomin, huh?

Oh Mama!

3 Paul   ~  Oct 21, 2009 4:37 pm

Has he contributed anything to YFSF this year? That place is overrun with belligerent SFs. Today's discussion? Shaughnessy and 2004.

4 The Mick536   ~  Oct 21, 2009 4:43 pm

A little too artsy for me at the present. I am stuck in the Jansen/Gombrich level.

Am reading October Men, a book about the 1978 Yankees by Roger Kahn. I heartedly recommend it. I didn't remember that Al Rosen went to the game. A shanda....

5 Alex Belth   ~  Oct 21, 2009 4:50 pm

Did Kahn actually report anything new in that book? Haven't read it. I know he covered those teams, for what, Newsweek or Time?

6 Yankee Mama   ~  Oct 21, 2009 5:06 pm

[2] Wow, good call there Alex! Hmmm!

Could this really be the end? Being stuck inside a mobile.....

7 Paul   ~  Oct 21, 2009 5:10 pm

[2] I don't know about that epoch. I frequented those substances in the 90s.

8 williamnyy23   ~  Oct 21, 2009 5:11 pm

[4] [5] I really enjoyed October Men too. It's hard to say if he broke new ground because I read so much about that team, but I do recall it being a very interesting read from the perspective of someone covering the team. Along with Bronx Zoo, it's a very good catalogue of the late-1970s Yankees.

9 Emma Span   ~  Oct 21, 2009 5:31 pm

I can't wait to read "Master of Shadows" either. Art! Spies! Go Mark.

10 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Oct 21, 2009 5:40 pm

Very nice, Alex, thank you! I'm a big fan of Rubens' and I never knew any of that.
I especially like his Susanna Lundgrun (I think that's her name?) portrait and the others at the Met.

11 unmoderated   ~  Oct 21, 2009 5:45 pm

this wasn't even on my radar - thanks for the tip.

12 rbj   ~  Oct 21, 2009 5:55 pm

Ruebens a spy? Huh. Never would have guessed.

13 The Mick536   ~  Oct 22, 2009 4:13 pm

[5] Wrote for Saturday Evening Post and Esquire around the time. Lots of good insight. His tracing of Yanks history pretty mild, until he hits Burke and Steinbrenner. Delouses Billy, except for anti-semitism, pointing out he could have been the first real Mr. October. Knew Topping and Webb didn't like blacks or latinos. Didn't know Webb built Flamingo for Bugsy Siegel.

Only 100 pages into it. Just up to Reggie. Best line so far (tell me if you have ever heard it), Mickey Rivers real name is John Milton Rivers. In addition to playing the horses and always being broke (which we all knew), Kahn says the Rivers is the only person named for the famous poet who hadn't read him and didn't know who he was.

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