Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

History of Art

First Advisor

Shira Brisman

Second Advisor

Larry Silver


The Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) is best known today for his depictions of full-figured women. However, the male nude is just as prevalent in his oeuvre. In fact, muscular male figures were a signature of Rubens’s early career. This dissertation investigates how Rubens and his wealthy, educated peers looked at men’s bodies, including contemporary men in portraiture; idealized male figures (such as Christ and Hercules) in religious and mythological artworks; and male nudes in preparatory drawings and finished paintings. Each chapter explores themes of masculinity, identity formation, and men’s reception of the male form. By examining Netherlandish visual and material culture, this project demonstrates how concepts of ideal masculinity shaped men’s images of themselves and others in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To reflect the range of elite male roles in early modern Antwerp, this project provides studies of Rubens and his friend and patron Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640). While serving as a court artist and diplomat, Rubens studied and designed idealized male nudes. By marrying twice and fathering eight children, Rubens embraced the role of pater familias, becoming the head of the household that society prescribed. During his time as a city official, Rockox commissioned paintings of powerful male figures that decorated his home and local churches. Widowed and childless, Rockox became a father figure for the city of Antwerp, dedicating himself to the welfare of his hometown and investing in public art, fortifications, and charity. Like so many gentlemen in their circle, Rubens and Rockox modeled their virtuous masculine behavior after biblical, mythological, philosophical, and decorous exemplars. Through the analysis of two specific men’s lives, portraits, and artworks featuring male bodies, this dissertation offers a cultural and historical study of seventeenth-century gender norms that Rubens and his peers inherited, confronted, and, ultimately, reinforced. Analyzing Rubens and his work in the context of idealized and temporal concepts of early modern masculinity provides new insights on the multifaceted identity of one of the most well-studied European painters in art history.


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