Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Diplomat, art collector, scholar, businessman, confidant of rulers and intellectuals, fluent in six languages, Rubens was one of the most dynamic men of his age. He was also a brilliant artist, as well as a doting husband and father, as this handsome portrait of Rubens, his second wife, Helena Fourment, and their second son, Peter Paul, reveals.
The couple married on December 6, 1630, when Rubens was 53 and Helena 16. A friend of Rubens wrote a wedding poem for the couple: ‘May he who has lived through five decades receive what buds now into first blossom in you; he will grow young again in your arms, maid …’ And in many ways he did. The couple had five children and Helena, the youngest daughter of a long-time friend, became Rubens’ model and the inspiration for his paintings, particularly those about love and beauty. This portrait captures a bit of Rubens’ happiness in his second marriage.
Pictured as a youthful 62, Rubens gazes adoringly, almost with paternal care, at his innocent-looking young wife, who in turn looks to their child. All three are richly and fashionably attired, particularly Helena who has a huge jeweled brooch dangling from her ample bosom. With her buxom form and rosy skin she is the quintessential ‘Rubenesque’ female.
X-rays have shown that Rubens altered the picture as he painted, shifting the focus from himself as head of the household, to Helena as the perfect wife and mother. She receives loving looks from both husband and son and the scene is filled with symbols of ideal motherhood: the parrot is a symbol of the Virgin Mary and the fountain, caryatid, and garden setting imply fertility, as well as portraying Rubens’ own garden in Antwerp.
It is an idyllic image of domestic bliss, marital and filial love, prosperity and elegance, all expressed in Rubens’ characteristically exuberant Baroque style full of joie de vivre. The style was the product of his varied influences and exceptional talent. After beginning his studies in his native Antwerp, Rubens headed to Italy in 1600 where antiquity, Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Titian, and contemporaries such as Caravaggio and Giulio Romano, all influenced him. Among the finest draftsmen of all time, Rubens blended his northern European sense of realism with Italy’s love of grandeur and monumentality.
After several years as court painter, as well trusted courtier and international diplomat, to the duke of Mantua, he returned to Antwerp in 1608, taking up a similar role for the Habsburg rulers. He rose to unprecedented heights in art and diplomacy. He received commissions from all over Europe and was hailed as ‘the Apelles of our age.’ He also traveled widely on diplomatic missions and was knighted in 1630 by Charles I of England for his role in brokering a peace treaty between England and Spain. When he died in 1640 – just a year after this painting was completed and Helena was pregnant with their fifth child – he was justly commemorated as ‘the most learned painter in the world.’
His influence in the arts lasted long after his death and this painting became the prized possession of successive art connoisseurs: from Habsburg hands, it was presented to the first duke of Marlborough by the city of Brussels in 1704; it then hung at Blenheim Palace until it was purchased by Baron Alphonse de Rothschild in 1884. The painting was donated to the Met in 1981.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1636 Nicolas Poussin: A Dance to the Music of Time, London, Wallace Collection
1636 Francisco Zurbarán: St Lawrence, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
1638 Anthony van Dyck: Equestrian Portrait of King Charles I, London, National Gallery