PIERRE-PAUL RUBENS is one of the most powerful and productive painters of the history of art. His work is immense; it is not a large museum in Europe which does not have several canvases signed by him, and this is explained by the fact that during his lifetime he worked extensively in Italy, Spain and France, and that the foreign princes, at the time of the sale which followed his death, disputed at the price of gold the pictures remaining in his studio. The Louvre is particularly rich in the works of the great painter; the one we expose here is one of the most beautiful.
It represents Helena Fourment, second wife of Rubens, with two of her children. The young woman sits holding one of her children in her arms while the other, a girl, placed in front of her, raises her apron in a graceful gesture. Between the two children, it can be seen a bird flying away.
Rubens had married twice, first on October 3, 1609, with Isabelle Brandt, daughter of Jean Brandt, secretary of the Regency, shortly after his return to Antwerp, when he left the service of the Duke of Mantua. He was then thirty-two years old, his young wife eighteen. She gave him two sons whose portraits are now in the Lichtenstein Gallery in Vienna. She died at the age of thirty-five, and Rubens experienced a profound grief from this loss. “In truth,” he wrote, “I have lost an excellent companion; she had none of the faults of her sex; no sad mood, none of those weaknesses of woman, but only goodness and delicacy. Such a loss seems very sensible to me, and since the only remedy for all evils is the oblivion which time gives rise to, it will doubtless be necessary to hope for my help, but it will be difficult for me to separate the pain thafor his death from the memory that I must keep all my life to this beloved and revered woman!”
The appeasement took place more quickly than Rubens had expected. Four years after, on the 6th of December, 1630, he married, at the age of fifty-four, the pretty Helena Fourment, the niece of her first wife, who was only sixteen. Besides the painting reproduced here, it is known another well-known portrait, generally known under the title of Straw Hat.
The portrait of is Helena Fourment with her children is a marvel of lightness and transparency. “These are,” writes Gautier, “only rubbins penetrated with light, and touches dropped and thrown as if at random, but expressing what they mean better than the most advanced work. In this deliciously delicate canvas, Rubens tempered his red ardor. It is blond, silvery, pearly like satin and light.”
Rubens was only sixty-three years old when he died, in full power of his genius, without having undergone that degradation which often spoils the end of the greatest artists. He was buried in the vault of Messer Fourment, his father-in-law. “These gentlemen,” recounts the death register of the parish, “contributed all together to the expense of transportation and the quest produced 9 gros 10 sous. The convoy took place with 60 candlesticks decorated with red satin crosses and the music of Notre-Dame. We sang the Miserere before Mass, then the Dies Iræ and other psalms. It was exhibited with 6 tapers. The expenses of the church, fixed at first at 6 livres, amounted to 69 gros 3 sous which were paid. “His widow, Helena Fourment, had a chapel built behind the choir of the church of Saint-Jacques where his remains were carried. On the altar is the Saint George where the artist, it is said, had represented himself with his two wives, Isabelle Brandt in Virgin Mary, Helena Fourment in Mary Magdalene.
The succession of Rubens amounted to 700,000 guilders. The widow and sons of the first bed, Albert and Nicolas Rubens, were awarded a number of paintings, in addition to the portraits which came to them. The rest was sold at public auction. This sale, which consisted of no less than three hundred and fourteen paintings or drawings, took place on March 17, 1642, in an Antwerp inn, at the Souci d’Or, of which the wife, the widow Sagers, received from the family 474 florins for the refreshments served to the agents and amateurs, among whom were the representatives of the Emperor of Germany, the Elector of Bavaria, the King of Poland (Gustave Geffroy ). The drawings and a large quantity of paintings were acquired by the banker Jabach, who later sold a part of his collection to Louis XIV.
As for the portrait of Helena Fourment, it belonged in the middle of the seventeenth century to M. de la Live de Jully; at the sale of this collector, M. Randon de Boisset bought it for 20,000 livres; a few years later, in 1777, he went into the collection of the Comte de Vaudreuil, who paid him 18,000 livres. It is finally acquired for 20,000 livres by the Crown in 1784. It is now in the part of the great gallery of the Louvre reserved for Flemish painting.
Height: 1.13.-Width: 0.82.-Nature small figure.
Translated from Louvre Museum, by Armand Dayot