Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
The richly dressed young woman depicted here, holding a prayer book in one hand and drawing back her veil with the other, is Helena Fourment, the daughter of an Antwerp silk merchant, whom Rubens married in December 1630, when she was sixteen and Rubens, a widower, was fifty-three. Rubens shows her near life size, rendered in a delicate combination of subtly handled black, red and white chalks that celebrates both her beauty and his own skill as an artist; without using any further colours, he expertly conveys the colour of her eyes, the blonde of her hair and the rose of her cheeks. He derived her apparently natural gesture of lifting her veil, expressing modesty, from a celebrated classical sculpture, the Venus Pudica (‘modest Venus’). The drawing thus serves both as a portrait of a real, living woman and as an evocation of ideal beauty and marital virtue.
The drawing has been altered in two notable ways since its creation. A subsequent owner cut the drawing from its original sheet along the outlines of Helena’s veil, hair and headdress and pasted it down on a new sheet. The join is only noticeable when viewed at close range (fig. 2).
The same owner may also have been responsible for retouching certain areas of the drawing in pen and ink, such as the headdress and the outline of Helena’s left iris (fig. 3), presumably in order to emphasise them. Retouching and ‘improving’ drawings in this manner, although frowned upon today, was common practice among collectors before the nineteenth century, and indeed Rubens himself often engaged in it; a drawing by the sixteenth-century Flemish artist Michiel I Coxie which he owned and which is now in The Courtauld Gallery’s collection bears traces of his own retouching.
Helena’s lavish and elegant dress not only alludes to the source of her family’s wealth – the silk trade – but also suggests the social distinction Rubens had gained in marrying her. Her striking headdress – a cap with a pompom-topped handle, to which a finely pleated silk mantle was attached – is a huyck, which originated as an all-weather garment in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century but, by the seventeenth century, had become a
fashionable accessory. Women wearing huycks sometimes appear in contemporary genre scenes set out of doors, but the presence of a huyck in a portrait is highly unusual. Three years after making this drawing, Rubens painted Helena wearing a huyck in an outdoor setting but never depicted her thus clad again. Surprisingly, one of the very few other portraits of a woman wearing one, a painting attributed to Jacob I van Oost (1601-1671), is also in The Courtauld’s collection.