Master of Shadows

The true story of the world’s most famous painter, who lived a double life as a secret agent and covert political operative. Published in the United States by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday and in Dutch (De Bezige Bij), Polish (Swiat Kiazki), and Spanish (Tusquets) editions. Available from:

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Praise for Master of Shadows

“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.—NY Magazine Approval Matrix

“An exceptional book.”—Library Journal

“Rubens’s story surprises and dazzles.”—Kirkus

A Daily Beast “Hot Read” & Indie Next Notable Book

“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, author, 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, author, 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, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

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, Le Corbusier: A Life

“Imagine that Pablo Picasso, in addition to painting the most famous masterpieces of the twentieth 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 seventeenth-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, author, 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, author, 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, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring

“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, Court Lady and Country Wife: Two Noble Sisters in Seventeenth-Century England

“Gripping and intense….Lamster takes the reader on a journey through secret treaties, gorgeous art and secret negotiations conducted by the artist. It’s an incredibly involving portrait of a man as complicated as the world around him, a man who helped crate that complicated world. Inner and outer beauties collide. Lamster’s a fine writer who knows how to take the reader through history that we think we understand, only to offer a very fresh perspective. The prose is transparent, the better to see the people, the places and the events portrayed. Nan A. Talese has included a generous number of color plates in the book to compliment the excellent story. Here’s a proto-steampunk thriller about a real artist who happened to be a spy and a diplomat, in a lovely package. Reality seems to overtake fantasy with an ease that is often nearly as breathtaking as the work of Rubens.”

“Deeply engrossing and entertaining….There is so much to learn from Master of Shadows about history and politics it falls in the category of works like Machiavelli’s The Prince….An achievement.”
—Daily Collegian

“Mark Lamster’s political biography of Peter Paul Rubens’ role in continental politics is a work gracefully styled and delightful to read, a story that recovers the artist’s hidden side — a man of uncommon political skill, Rubens was a philosopher and pragmatist well ahead of his time in recognizing the linkings between the power centers of Europe.”


Peter Paul Rubens is best remembered as the Old Master with the penchant for fleshy, pink nudes; an artist more often beloved than admired by contemporary audiences. In his time, however, Rubens had no equal; his contemporaries revered him as the greatest painter of his era, if not in all history. His undeniable artistic genius, bolstered by a modest disposition and a reputation as a man of tact and discretion, made him a favorite among monarchs and political leaders across Europe, and gave him perfect cover for the clandestine activities that shaped the landscape of seventeenth century politics.

Master of Shadows tells the story of Rubens’ life and re-creates the culture, religious conflicts, and political intrigues of his time. Commissions to paint military and political leaders drew Rubens from his Antwerp home to London, Madrid, Paris, and Rome. The Spanish crown, recognizing the value of his easy access to figures of power, enlisted him into diplomatic service. His uncommon intelligence, preternatural charm, and ability to navigate through ever-shifting political winds allowed him to negotiate a long-sought peace treaty between England and Spain even as Europe’s shrewdest statesmen plotted against him. And all the while, he was busy creating a catalog of art’s most enduring masterpieces.

Master of Shadows weaves a gripping drama of cloak-and-dagger diplomacy ghostwriter with an insightful, authoritative exploration of Rubens’ art and the society, culture, and private passions that influenced it.

Published in the United States by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday and concurrently in Dutch translation as “De Meester van der Schaduw,” by De Bezige Bij. A Spanish-language edition is forthcoming from Tusquets Editores.

Hear me talk about the book on WABC’s John Batchelor Show.

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