Point of view #13
Rubens’ Portrait of Helena Fourment. Some Hidden Aspects of „The Fur“
Point of View #13 focuses on Rubens’ celebrated portrait of his second wife, Helena Fourment (1614-1673); the artist and his family always referred to the painting as “The Fur”. In many respects, this is a highly unusual work that invites a closer look – especially as Rubens did not produce it for the art market but for his own enjoyment. Recent technological analyses have revealed spectacular new information on the genesis of this highlight of 17th century Netherlandish portraiture.
In connection with the exhibition Rubens in Private. The Master Portrays his Family at the Rubenshuis in Antwerp the painting was analysed using recently-developed technology - with astonishing results. A multidisciplinary team comprising a scientist from the University of Antwerp, an art-historian from the Catholic University of Louvain, and a conservator from the Restoration Workshop of the Kunsthistorisches Museum analysed the picture using macro x-ray fluorescence scanning, a non-invasive technique that identifies the different elements comprising the paint layers. It maps the various elements of visible and no-longer visible paint layers, allowing us to reconstruct the genesis of the composition.
Today, the painting shows us a full-length nude portrait of Helena, with nothing but a fur coat thrown over her shoulders, standing on a red carpet in front of a dark background. If you look
carefully, you can make out a lion mask spouting water on the right. Such fountainheads were generally found outdoors, proffering the question where exactly Rubens positioned his young wife. Mapping the area behind Helena on the right for lead revealed something remarkable: Rubens had initially depicted his wife in front of a two-tier fountain set in a semi-circular niche topped by a puer mingens, a small stone figure of a curly-haired boy holding up his shirt to urinate. Clearly, Rubens had first depicted Helena outdoors.
This fountain sculpture was inspired both by a classical statue now in the Louvre that Rubens had seen and drawn in Rome, and by ideas gleaned from works by Titian. This type of fountain is unique in his oeuvre. The Renaissance regarded a urinating boy as a symbol of fertility and sexuality. And Helena Fourment was undoubtedly a fecund woman: in her ten-year marriage to Rubens she gave birth to five children and had another six with her second husband, Jan-Baptist van Brouchoven van Bergeyck.
However, it seems that either the fountain detracted too much from her celebrated beauty or that Rubens found the reference too crude after all – whatever the reason, the master decided to
repaint the background in a dark natural colour, replacing the basin of the fountain with a carpet and a red pillow.
But an analysis of the arrangement of the oak panels carried out by the restorers of the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s Conservation Studio has revealed that this was not the only radical change in the course of the work’s genesis. Rubens started out with a halflength figure, probably informed by Titian’s Young Woman Wearing a Fur Coat that he had seen and copied in the collection of King Charles I of England during his sojourn in London. Today, Titian’s painting is also in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and for the duration of Point of View #13 both masterpieces will be united in Room 24 of the Picture Gallery.
Rubens painted this portrait of Helena for his own enjoyment, which allowed him to give free rein to his imagination, enlarging the oak panel as he saw fit to produce the mysterious portrait of his young wife we see today. Questions such as why is Helena wearing nothing but a fur coat, or is she drawing it around her shoulders or about to let it slide to the floor remain up to the spectator to decide.
In 2012 the Picture Gallery began a series of exhibitions entitled Points of View, each of which showcases a single exceptional artwork from the collection that is rarely exhibited either due to
lack of hanging space or where recent research has revealed interesting new aspects that invite visitors to take a closer look.
30 July 2015
to 29 November 2015