Portrait of Helena Fourment (The little fur coat)

Peter Paul Rubens • Painting, 1638, 176×83 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Portrait
Style of art: Baroque
Technique: Oil
Materials: Wood
Date of creation: 1638
Size: 176×83 cm
Artwork in selections: 50 selections
Exhibitions history

Description of the artwork «Portrait of Helena Fourment (The little fur coat)»

In 2015, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna hosted an exhibition of just one portrait, A  Little Fur Coat by Peter Paul Rubens. After its X-ray examination, a completely different background was revealed, which had been overpainted by the artist himself. However, the picture is worthy of a separate exhibition, even if inquisitive scientists did not find any secrets in it, except for the obvious — this is the work of an artist, passionately loving and admiring.

Helena Fourment was only 16 when she married 53-year-old Rubens, a diplomat, a Spanish and Flemish nobleman, the country’s most famous artist. She was the daughter of a carpet and tapestry merchant, there were 10 more children in her family. She hardly could bring a large dowry, but she was young and beautiful. In his goddesses, graces and nymphs, Rubens only predicted the image of Helena for himself until then, endowing all these mythical women with her features he had not met yet. Now this image has received a living embodiment, gentle, virtuous, radiant.
Helena appeared in Rubens’ life at the time when he had already learned to paint women. There is no vulgarity or challenge in his nude, his women shine with the light of their thin skin, through which bluish veins glow. Guido Reni admired one of his naked beauties and said that the Fleming must be mixing real blood into his colours, as the bodies depicted were so full of life.

Rubens was head over heels in love, he was in such a hurry to get married that he sent the Archduchess Isabella a request to conduct a wedding ceremony during Lent. Peter Paul wrote to his friend: “I took a young wife, a daughter of honest citizens, although they tried to persuade me from all sides to choose a bride from the court; but I was afraid of the evil trait common to the nobility — pride, it is especially strong with women. I wanted to have a wife who would not blush when she saw me taking up my brushes.” He not only refused to seek happiness at court, he left there forever, using his inexplicable ability to remain the favourite of kings, posing them his own conditions of life and work. He left the diplomatic service, settled in a suburban castle, loaded up his young wife with jewellery and lush outfits, and also painted her portraits endlessly.

A Little Fur Coat is the most intimate and playful work of the artist, Rubens painted it for his pleasure and bequeathed it to Helena after his death. First, he painted a half-length portrait in which he bowed towards Titian's Girl in a Fur. Then he added one more board to the main one, and gave himself the happiness to paint Helena in full growth.

Helena Fourman was a recognized beauty, and Rubens was too educated and wise husband to lock his young wife within the walls of his country house. He painted her generously and persistently: as Venus in the Judgement of Paris canvas, as Bathsheba and one of the Three Graces. Without a slight doubt, he argued with the customer, the King of Spain, by the way, when he suddenly found the nakedness of the goddesses in the Judgement of Paris too defiant. Rubens was sure, this was the best part of his picture. Like Helena Fourman was the best part of his life.

Written by Anna Sidelnikova