Peter Paul Rubens - Helena Fourment in a Fur Robe

by Lisa Scheffert


"Das Pelzchen - The Little Fur" - this is the name given to the painting Peter Paul Rubens made of his second wife Helena Fourment, a belittling of the heavy furry cloak that just barely envelops the female contours of her almost naked body. But it is probably this circumstance, this "just so", that justifies the name. Only a hint of clothing, here a heavy fur coat and a light shawl, covers the otherwise naked skin.

Filling almost the entire picture ground, a nearly naked young woman stands on a red carpet, looking out of the picture at the viewer. Her white skin stands out in stark contrast to the dark, almost jet-black background. She is slightly turned backwards and standing on her left leg, the right one already slightly raised, as if she were moving, almost as if she were turning; the left side of her body is also not visible due to her posture and the implied movement, which gives the picture a fresh dynamic. A dark and heavy fur coat, presumably made for men, richly decorated at the hem and on the sleeves with lighter ornaments, just barely covers the left shoulder, part of the back and buttocks as well as the young woman's pubic area. She has merely put it on, not put it on, so that she now holds it in place with her right hand over her left shoulder and her left hand around her hips so that it does not expose the rest of her body as well. This posture supports the illusion of a turning movement.


Despite these shamefaced gestures, she gazes unblinkingly at the viewer, a faint smile curling the young woman's lips. Earrings adorn her, and the blonde, curly and shoulder-length, open hair is held back by a kind of white, thin and precious-looking ribbon. The impression of preciousness is mainly created by the huge fur coat. Contemporaries certainly knew the high value, for the fur trade was regulated early on in Europe and was often only available to selected social groups, especially the nobility. Rubens could have emphasised his special diplomatic status in the European aristocracy by doing this and thus joins a frequently practised artistic tradition.


The woman's dark brown, large eyes seem to sparkle, making her gaze appear curious, almost challenging and playful. This effect is achieved by the lighter colour accents in her eyes, which make them appear moist, lively and young. The reddish cheeks and full mouth are also given a fresh youthfulness by the colouring. The even skin, the delicately modelled eyebrows, the straight nose and the almost oval shape of her face are reminiscent of an ancient beauty in their perfection. But the otherwise voluptuous body corresponds entirely to the baroque ideal of beauty.


Her left hand holds a white linen cloth and her cloak in an elegant gesture, but it is not a firm grip and one would think she would soon let go. Of the right hand, the thumb and index finger are recognisable; the rest of the hand disappears in the shadow of the dark background, this gesture also appears elegant and sensual and has nothing of a firm grip around the coat. Although the situation is intimate, she does not seem embarrassed. This raises the question of whether she is now trying to cover her body with the fur coat, or perhaps is in the process of completely revealing herself. In favour of the unveiling thesis is above all the fact that the body emerges from the picture as the only carrier of brightness due to the garish colours, as if it were being presented to the viewer. Her legs still seem to reflect the reddish colour of the carpet on which she is standing. Upper and lower body are clearly separated by the dark fur coat.


Specialist literature compares Rubens' painting with Titian's "Girl in Fur", whose identity remains unclear to this day. Often, an antique quotation of Venus pudica is read into both paintings. This established a certain genre of portrait painting in which the function of having to commemorate a particular person was not important. Rather, painters could ingeniously demonstrate their knowledge of antiquity through such a quotation.

Moreover, by examining "Helena Fourment in a Fur Robe" with a macro X-ray fluorescence scanner, layers beneath the completed version could be made visible, showing that Rubens had originally planned a different composition. It is thought that Helena was intended to be depicted as a half-figure portrait, like Titian's girl. These findings support the comparative interpretation of Rubens' painting with Titian's picture. In addition, a fountain architecture could be made visible in the background, which places the portrait scene in the open air and at first reminds one of bathing scenes. This is a further indication of a mythological significance as a reception of Venus pudica from antiquity, and thus makes it impossible to pin down a clear interpretation of the painting. Rubens, as a master of painterly virtuosity, drastic affect, richness of allusion, and complex iconography (which was always an intellectual challenge), succeeded in making much more out of a portrait of his wife.


Rather, it is the successful result of a challenge to himself to include in a personal portrait, without any outside commission, the richness of facets for which he was so well known and appreciated. At the same time, he was responding to the reactions of his contemporaries to his marriage to Helena, who used this portrait as an "occasion to go into great detail about eroticism in general and the emotional life of the master in particular" (Büttner, 2007). (Büttner, 2007) After his death, the painting remained in the inalienable possession of the family.


Bibliography

Büttner, Nils, Rubens, (Beck'sche Reihe, 2504), Munich, 2007


Heijo Klein, Richard Kreidler, Nude + Action, the Human Body in Art, Seventh Youth Exhibition of the Cologne Museums, Cologne, 1972/73


Sabine Haag and Stefan Weppelmann (eds.), Rubens' Portrait of Helena Fourment, The Hidden Sides of the "Furry", (Ansichtssache, #13), Vienna, 2015


Traude Tannengießer, Rubens copies Titian, (Habil. Schrift/ Freiburg i. Br., 1990), Freiburg, 1990.



Peter Paul Rubens - Helena Fourment "The Little Fur"

Oil on oak, c. 1636/38, 178.7 × 86.2 × 2.5 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Inv. - No. GG 89


Titian - Girl with Fur

1538, Oil on canvas, , 95,5 × 63,7 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


Ippolito Buzzi (Praxiteles copy) - Venus pudica / Knidish Aphrodite

Mamor, 16th century, Museo nazionale romano di palazzo Altemps, Rome