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Rubens and big secrets of his Little Fur Coat

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On top of the latest technology, the researchers of Old Masters make amazing discoveries. The famous portrait by Rubens, which depicts the artist’s second wife, Helena Fourment (1614—1673), presented another surprise to the restorers. It turned out that the most interesting thing is not on the model, but behind it.
Rubens himself and his family called this painting Het Pelsken — "The Little Fur Coat". This outstanding 17th century Dutch portraiture was the focus of 2015 Viewpoint #13 exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
The Little Fur Coat portrait was analyzed on the eve of the exhibition, Rubens in Private: The Master Portrays His Family, which was held in March — June 2015 at the Rubens House museum. The scholars managed to see what was hidden under the top paint layer.


Now in the picture we can see naked Helena at full height wearing a fur coat loosely draped around her shoulders. She stands on a red carpet against a dark background. But if you look closely, on the right, you can see a lion’s mask with water flowing from its mouth. Such fountains were usually located in the streets. Hence the question arises: where, in fact, did Rubens find a place for his young wife to pose?

Examining the space behind Helena revealed something curious. In the first version, she stood in front of a two-level fountain installed in a semicircular niche. Upstairs was the puer mingens, a small stone figure of a curly-haired boy who lifted his shirt to urinate. There is no doubt that initially Rubens portrayed his wife… in the open air.

Rubens could get inspired by a classic figurine he saw and sketched in Rome (now it is in the Louvre), and an idea drawn from one of Titian’s work.
In the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
, the pissing boy symbolized fertility and sexuality. And Helena Fourment was undoubtedly a fertile woman: in ten years of marriage with Rubens, she bore him five children (and the sixth one was born to her second husband, Jean-Baptiste de Brouchoven, whom she married after the artist’s death).
However, either Rubens decided that the fountain distracted too much attention from the charms of his wife, or he found the reference too crude, but for some reason he subsequently filled the background with a natural dark colour and replaced the fountain bowl with the carpet and the red pillow.

There’s more to come. An analysis of the oak panel, on which the portrait was painted, showed that at first, Rubens had painted only half of the figure. He probably referred to Titian’s Girl in a Fur, which he copied in the collection of King Charles I of England while in London. Now the Titian’s work is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and at the Viewpoint #13 exhibition, both masterpieces were displayed side by side.
Titian Vecelli. Woman in a fur coat
Woman in a fur coat
1535, 95.5×63.7 cm
Rubens created this portrait of Helena for his own pleasure, and it allowed him to give free rein to his imagination. He lengthened the oak panel and made the picture as we see it today. Why is Helena wearing nothing but a fur coat, is she going to put it around her shoulders or let it slide freely onto the floor — the viewer can answer all these questions independently.
In 2012, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna launched a series of exhibitions under the general title Viewpoint. Each of them showcased one exceptional masterpiece from the collection. It was either a rarely exhibited work, or a painting, in which researchers discovered new interesting aspects.
The material used information from artdaily.com, news.artnet.com, The Guardian, official sites of the museums.