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Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens Hardcover – Bargain Price, October 20, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Mark Lamster on Master of Shadows

Peter Paul Rubens gives us a lot to think about in his canvasses of rushing color, action, and puckered flesh, so it’s not surprising that his work as a diplomat and spy has been neglected. One of my goals in writing Master of Shadows was to fill that gap in the record. Here, after all, is an actual Old Master using actual secret codes, dodging assassination, plotting the overthrow of foreign governments, and secretly negotiating for world peace.

Certainly, a biographer could not ask for a more compelling subject. Rubens was a charismatic man of extraordinary learning, fluent in six languages, who made a fortune from his art. He never fit the paradigm of the artist as a self-destructive figure at odds with convention. More than one of his contemporaries actually thought his skill as a statesman surpassed his unmatched talent before an easel.

Though it is set four centuries ago, I believe readers will find the Rubens story deeply resonant with contemporary experience. Rubens was a moderate man in a dogmatic time, a pragmatist who spent much of his life working to end a seemingly intractable conflict driven by ideologues. In writing the book, I was routinely astonished by the eerie parallels between his time and our own. The political battles he fought naturally inform his paintings, many of which serve as meditations on the costs and ravages of war. In illuminating this history, I hope Master of Shadows will help modern audiences recapture some of the urgency and grandeur of his work--and his riveting life. --Mark Lamster

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A Best Read of 2009
Providence Journal

"A Fascinating study."
The Telegraph (A Book of the Year)

"Mark Lamster is a brave writer....His affection for his subject is so complete—and completely convincing—his style is so gracefully unpretentious and his research is so thorough that Master of Shadows manages to be engaging, instructive and thought-provoking, all at once."
The Los Angeles Times

"A different kind of artist's biography....Gripping reading."
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Highbrow and Brilliant
New York Magazine Approval Matrix

"An exceptional book."
Library Journal

A Daily Beast "Hot Read"

Selected as an Indie Next Notable Book for November 2009

"Rubens’s story surprises and dazzles."

“In elegant brushstrokes, and using as his subject the painter/diplomat Rubens, Mark Lamster gives us here a vivid portrait of 17th century Europe and the political intrigue that led to the modern world.”
—Russell Shorto, bestselling author of The Island at the Center of the World
"Mark Lamster looks beyond Rubens's talent for era-defining sensual nudes and delves into his little-known career as a diplomat and spy. The result is an exhilarating portrait of an age as dramatic and richly toned as one of Rubens's gigantic canvases."
—Ross King, bestselling author of Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling
"This adroitly crafted biography of Rubens brings to life an artist so busy wheeling and dealing with the crowned heads of Europe that it's amazing he found the time to put brush to canvas. Lamster's account engages the student of history as much as it opens the eyes of those who love Rubens's art."
—Timothy Brook, author of Vermeer's Hat
"Master of Shadows is a fascinating account, as lively as it is informed. This utterly intriguing narrative has the knowledge and verve that infuse Rubens's brushstrokes; Lamster writes with the panache and enthusiastic engagement, as well as the capability, warranted by his marvelous subject.”
—Nicholas Fox Weber, author of Le Corbusier and The Bauhaus Group
“Imagine that Pablo Picasso, in addition to painting the most famous masterpieces of the 20th century, had also devoted decades of his life to secret diplomacy aimed at preventing another world war. That is exactly what Peter Paul Rubens, the most revered painter of his era, did in 17th-century Europe. Mark Lamster tells this little-known story with a combination of brio and historical erudition bound to appeal to anyone who cares about beauty, passion, war and peace. I couldn't put it down.”
—Susan Jacoby, bestselling author of The Age of American Unreason
“Art, war, diplomatic intrigue, secret spy missions-all rendered with the erudition of a scholar and the deft touch of a gifted writer. This is exactly what popular history should be. I was utterly transfixed by this book.”
—Jonathan Mahler, bestselling author of The Challenge: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld
“Piercing the darkened, secret world of agents, operatives, and diplomats is a difficult task at the best of times-and in Rubens's case, one thought impossible-but Mark Lamster brilliantly succeeds at shedding light on this most enigmatic, and aptly dubbed, Master of Shadows.”
—Alexander Rose, author of Washington's Spies
"Mark Lamster, a master of vivid writing, provides a highly readable account of the national rivalries and endemic warfare that fostered secret diplomacy in seventeenth-century Europe. Master of Shadows is a page-turner not to be missed.”
—Lita-Rose Betcherman, author of Court Lady and Country Wife
“Rubens's story surprises and dazzles.”
Kirkus Reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; 1 edition (October 20, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385523793
  • ASIN: B005ZO9ZJI
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,518,479 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If I described this book as a detailed biography of the great Baroque painter, you might wonder whether it could sustain your interest for a book-length read. But then you might miss this highly entertaining and skillfully written book---not only a master painter, serious scholar, and astute businessman, Rubens was also a diplomat and spy who traveled in the upper echelons of European society and royalty. Against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, the Eighty Years' War, and other historical events filled with intrigue, war, big personalities, and, yes, sex, the author tells a great tale of an extraordinary man in extraordinary times. Deftly written with great humor and care, Master of Shadows is a hard-to-put-down page-turner once you start. If only all "art history" was this much fun; hopefully Lamster will move on to other artists, assuming their stories are as fascinating as this.
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Format: Hardcover
While most everyone has heard the term 'Rubenesque' few people are directly familiar with Rubens work. As the author points out, he has no iconographic 'mona lisa' or other defining work. Fewer still are familiar with this diplomatic career.
That is the focus of Lamster's book.
He does a job creating an overview of the complex geopolitical picture of Europe -- the stage for Ruben's diplomatic drama. . despite packing in a lot of names, places, treaties, the narrative flows nicely - not an easy task for a writer! This is a nice, concise story of Rubens involvement in negotiations and diplomatic missions and how it naturally flowered out of his artistic career.
Side note: The books is what it says it is - it is NOT a biography that focuses on his artistic career-- so please no comments about 'i wish he had talked more about his painting' - on that note what he does mention about his artistic career and paintings is interesting and helps the story move along.

I am knocking off one star for the last chapter a sermonizing, politically correct 'epilogue'. tiresome.
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Format: Hardcover
Lamster is a great story teller. Staying true to the historical facts he managed to get me hooked from the first pages. Not an easy task considering the convoluted political situation at the time of Peter Paul Rubens. Lamter Master of Words.
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Format: Hardcover
The book weaved a fascinating and yet convincing net to cover Rubens's whole life, especially his not-so-well-known diplomatic life.
It certainly is with great pleasure to immerse oneself in art and history throughout the book, and pay tribute to the Master who possessed so many virtues, which is a rare in modern world.
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Format: Hardcover
I am an artist in oils and have read nearly all there is written on P.P. Rubens. I have seen and copied many of his works and studied his techniques and his methods.

In all the study and information there was always the mention of his diplomatic capabilities and endeavors. Yet, with the exception of Schama's "Rembrant's Eyes" , I have never read anything that so concisely and "readably" (I know not a word) delves into his activities with and integration of the times and commissions of those events. This was truly surprising for me, I almost could not put it down.

It is rare to get true "Art History" that blends life with craft mixed with emotion and symbology, this work is not that but a wonderful rounding of the remarkable actions of a man striving to believe in the possible. For me, it enhanced the paintings that much further............ an act that I thought was no longer possible. Thus it is a true gift.

It is true that if one knows the histories and actions and paintings already that the read is probably not tedious (if it is at all, as others have said).

I would want the author Mr Lamster to know that his work has actually given me further inspiration as an artist and a person. Ruben's is/was for lack of a better phrase a "Renaissance Man" of the first order, capable of being Husband, Father, CEO, Artist, Shopkeeper, Diplomat, Wordsmith, Mediator, Peacekeeper, Philanthropist, et all. Someone known yet not understood in recent centuries and so much more that an "esque".

Thank you for the work and toil it must have been to complete. It is rare indeed for me to review anything. This is deserving of high praise.
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By Oma on September 28, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition
LOVED this book. What surprised me the most is... how funny it is--perhaps not surprising coming from a guy who seems to hold some kind of world record for complaints uttered in a minute. Lamster does an amazing job not just conjuring Rubens the the spy--a feat in itself--but his world in all of its quirky detail. The characters, and particularly the side characters, such as the guy whose job it is to wash down Rubens's horses, are what drew me in. This is a book you won't be able to put down.
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Format: Paperback
A well written, well paced, thoughtful book. The author isn't an intellect on the same order as Rubens' talent, but that can't really be expected. In this case it isn't all that desired...Master of Shadows is more of a reportage.

And a really good reportage it is, of an age when artists led interesting lives. If you're looking to spend some afternoons in an escapist fantasy that has some anchors in art history, this is the read for you.
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