Portrait of Susanna Lunden by Peter Paul Rubens

Portrait of Susanna Lunden by Peter Paul Rubens (c.1622-5)

My Daily Art Display today is an oil on oak painting by Peter Paul Rubens which he completed around 1625.  It was entitled Portrait of Susanna Lunden (?).   An alternate title Le Chapeau de Paille, meaning straw hat, was first used in connection with this painting in the early 18th century.  However looking at the painting one can see that the lady is not wearing a straw hat which leads some art historians to believe that the alternate title of the painting is more likely to have been Le Chapeau de Poilpoil being the French word for fur.

There is a relaxed attitude to this picture presumably because of the family connection of artist and sitter.  The hat which partly shades the face of the lady is a dominant feature of this painting.   It is believed that the sitter is Susanna Lunden who was the third daughter of the Antwerp tapestry and silk merchant Daniel Fourment for whom Rubens designed.  There was, besides a working connection, a relationship between Fourment and the artist as in 1630, Rubens was to marry Susanna’s younger sister Hélène.  Also his sister-in-law, from his first marriage to Isabella Brunt was married to Susanna’s brother David Fourment.  The picture, which was started by Rubens around 1622, was at the time of Susanna’s second marriage, this time to Arnold Lunden.  Her first marriage ended with the death of her husband when she was still a teenager.  Judging by the ring on Susanna’s right index finger it is quite possible that the painting was a betrothal or marriage portrait.

Strange as it may seem, the painting grew in size as it was being painted as we now know that an extra strip of wood was added to the right-hand side and further strip of wood added to the bottom.  These additional strips allowed Rubens to enlarge his background and create a greater spread of sky to which the artist was then able to add some dark clouds to the right-hand side of the background, which contrasted to the clearer blue sky to the left.  Maybe there was some meaning to this contrast in the skies.  Maybe the dark clouds symbolised the sadness of a young widow and the bright blue skies represented the coming of a new and happy life through her second betrothal.  The light from the left hand side of the painting falls across the lady’s body and hands but the right side of her face is partly in shadow owing to the large brim of the hat.  However even the shadow could not lessen the lustre of her skin and the intensity of her eyes. 

It is a sparkling portrait.  The smiling Susanna seems thoughtful.    Maybe it is a shy smile.  Maybe it is a coy smile.  I wonder if she realises the beauty Rubens has conjured up for this portrait.  I am not even sure she is aware of her loveliness or, if she is, maybe it causes her embarrassment.   Her felt hat, adorned with its downy peacock feathers, is so wide and floppy that it almost borders on the absurd but would, I am sure, be well received on Lady’s Day at Ascot races!  The lady, with her full Rubenesque breasts,  a trademark of the Belgian painter, stands demurely before us but, to some extent, avoids our gaze.  

Rubens portrayal of Susanna presents us with a beautiful and desirable woman.  Look at her eyes.  See how Rubens has made the eyes large and lustrous and note how he has chosen black as the colour of the iris.   This enhances the beauty of the subject and her slightly parted pink lips add to her sensuousness and offer a suggestion of eroticism to the painting.  Her pale skin glistens in the light.  She almost glows.  Her red and grey robes are both opulent and unusual with the detachable red sleeves attached to her bodice with ribboned gold-tipped laces.  The colour of the ribbons match that of her lips, nostrils and eyelids.

Could the artist not help but be seduced by the beauty of his sitter ? 

Are we not beguiled by her beauty?