This superb portrait by Rubens of his wife Hélène and their three year old son, Frans can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Frans is the only one of their children featured which makes us think that Rubens did not see this work as a family portrait but had more to do with his desire to show off the beauty of his second wife. Look how Rubens has depicted himself and his son in this work. They both look lovingly at Hélène. She is the wife to one and the mother to the other. This in a way is Rubens’ intimate tribute to his wife. In the background we see a caryatid, (the sculpted female figure which is serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar), which along with the fountain in the right background, symbolise fecundity
In my last blog I had reached the year 1626, a distressing time in Peter-Paul Rubens’ life for this was the year his first wife and true love, Isabella Brandt died. Rubens was left alone with his three children, Clara Serena, Nikolas and Albertus. He was still employed as court painter at the court of Archduke Albert VII, the Archduke of Austria and Governor General of the Habsburg Netherlands and his wife and consort, the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia. It was in 1621, when her husband, Albert, died that the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, became the Governor of the Netherlands on behalf of the King of Spain. She was also keen to use Rubens’ ambassadorial skills and she sent him on a number of diplomatic missions to the Spanish and English courts to see if a solution could be found for the troubles besetting the Spanish Netherlands with the breakaway of the Seven United Provinces. His skill as a diplomat was well appreciated by both sides and he was knighted by King Philip IV of Spain in 1624 and six years later received a similar honour from Charles I of England. Notwithstanding his diplomatic brief, he continued to paint and received a number of royal commissions.
In this 1639 painting Hélène Fourment with a Carriage by Rubens, which is housed in the Louvre, we see his wife Hélène leaving their palatial home in Antwerp followed by her six year-old son Frans, who was born in 1633. We view the scene from a low level which affords Hélène a more regal and majestic stance as she awaits her carriage. Hélène, dressed like a lady of high society. She is dressed in a long black satin gown, in the wealthy and lavish Spanish style. She wears a small headdress with the pom-poms attached to large veil of black gauze. Rubens has contrasted the black of the dress with the bright white satin which form the puffed sleeves which are in turn accentuated by the gold braid. More colour is then added as we note the rosy pink of her cheeks and the purple sleeve bows and silk belt at her waist. She waits in front of a porch of their home with its columns and pilasters. The building had been designed by her husband, imitating an Italian palazzo. Hélène’sleft hand lies by her side whilst her right hand is raised in a gesture of modesty which belies her sumptuous clothes. Frans follows his mother, dressed in a red suit with a flat white collar. One must remember that Rubens at this time in his life was extremely affluent having been court painter at the Habsburg court and was also head of a thriving studio which was inundated with commissions from all over Europe. At the bottom left of the painting we see a two-horsed carriage awaiting mother and son. Besides a mode of transport the two-horsed carriage symbolised conjugal harmony. This is probably the last known portrait of Hélène by Rubens.
In 1630, at the age of 53, and four years after the death of his first wife, Isabella, Rubens married the 17 year-old daughter of his friend and tapestry merchant, Daniel ‘Le Jeune’ Fourment. His new wife, Hélène Fourment, went on to give him 5 children, two daughters, Clara Johanna and Isabella Helena and two sons, Frans and Peter-Paul. A fifth child, a third daughter Constance Albertine, was born eight months after Rubens died. My blog today looks at some of the many paintings by Rubens which featured his second wife, Hélène, many of which were portraits but she also featured in some of his allegorical and classical works.
Finally in August 1634, Rubens managed to relinquish his diplomatic work for the Habsburgs and in 1635 he bought himself a country estate, Het Steen, which was situated between Antwerp and Brussels. It was here that he spent much of the latter part of his life. Around 1636 Rubens completed a work entitled The Rainbow Landscape which was an imaginary artistic reconstruction of his own estate. It was a maginificent estate which included a castle, draw-bridge, tower, moats, a lake and a farm and gave him the right to be known as Lord of Het Steen. One can just imagine the joy it must have brought Rubens to spend his last quiet and tranquil years with his family at this idyllic place. At Het Steen, Rubens finally managed to enjoy the fruits of his long and hard-working career, and it was during these last years that he spent time painting landscapes.
In his later years, Rubens was increasingly troubled by arthritis which caused a swelling of the joints in his hands, which forced him to reluctantly give up painting altogether. Rubens died from heart failure on May 30th 1640, a month short of his sixty-third birthday. He was buried in Saint Jacob’s church, Antwerp. The artist left behind eight children, three with Isabella and five with Hélène.
The final painting I am showing you by Rubens, featuring his wife Hélène Fourment, is probably one of the strangest depictions a man could make of his beloved. The work was completed around 1638 when Rubens was 61 and Hélène was just 27. It is a life size painting of his wife, entitled Het Pelsken (The Little Fur), which is the title given to it by Rubens in his will. It is also sometimes referred to as Hélène Fourment in a Fur Coat. In the painting, Hélène is depicted nude except for a fur coat, which could well have belonged to her husband. This was a private work by Rubens. It was one of his favourite works and he would neither give it away, nor sell it nor exhibit it.
It was simply done by him for his own pleasure. It is an outstanding painted depiction of nakedness. It could well be that Rubens modelled his depiction on the Venus Pudica (modest Venus) of the life-size Venus de Medici, the Hellenistic marble sculpture which depicts the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, and which is housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Hélène stands before us on a red cloth, almost naked. She is portrayed with curly dishevelled hair. She just about holds on to the wrap which seems to be about to fall from her body and leave her completely naked. She clutches at it in a manner that both of her arms are wrapped around the front of her. Her left hand covers her pelvic region whilst her right hand holds the fur coat in position on her left shoulder and by doing so her right arm cradles and uplifts her breasts. Her nipples seem to have hardened and her face has a rosy glow to it which may indicate the pleasure she is experiencing as her husband stares out at her. There is a look of defiance about her expression. Is this look intended to be one of provocation as she exposes her body to her husband or is it that she is fed up with standing in such a pose and becoming cold? In some ways we are fascinated by what we see before us and yet in other ways, because of the personal nature of the painting we feel as if we are intruding into a private husband/wife moment and we feel we should look away. It is a truthful portrayal of his wife. He has not tried to idealise his wife’s body. She is a woman with a womanly figure and Rubens’ depiction of her is an honest portrayal of her and there can be no doubt that he found what he saw, very pleasurable.
In his will he left the painting to his wife with the stipulation that it should never be sold to pay for death duties. Hélène carried out his wish and it was not sold until after she died in 1658. The painting is currently housed in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.