Peter Paul Rubens
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. Her pompom-topped cap with a veil attached was known as a huyck; as a fashionable outdoor accessory, its presence in a portrait is highly unusual.
Rubens derived Helena’s 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.