by Blessy Augustine
November 16, 2018
The act of patient, sustained looking is a practiced skill, perhaps a dying one in much of contemporary life, but a skill nonetheless that continues to serve the observant art writer. In 2015, alumna Blessy Augustine (Class of 2016) set for herself a task of sustained looking by studying one painting repeatedly over the course of several months. Through her diaristic writing, first published in the Degree Critical print edition of 2017, the nearly 400-year old painting, Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment, and Their Son Frans (c. 1635) by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens undergoes surprising transformations and offers fresh revelations to Augustine, who returns to it time and again. Her essay relays the pleasures bestowed to the observant, a reminder of the importance in slowing down to look.
—Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief
It’s the shimmering black of Helena’s puffed up gown that dominates Peter Paul Rubens’ painting of himself with his wife and their son Frans. I can see the folds and the translucency of the material and feel it crinkle as Helena lifts it a little to make walking easier. Her blackness is richer than that of Rubens’ clothes and so is the glow on her face. I look around the gallery and realise that Rubens painted a lot of people wearing black clothes. Yet, Helena stands out. It’s a very different black from that of Rembrandt’s. The darkness in Rembrandt’s canvases does strange things to the characters inside them and to the people outside looking at them. I’m not sure which one is technically more difficult.
And then there’s the quixotic fact that Helena is holding on to her child with a leash. The wall text tells me that she is Rubens’ second wife. The artist was 53 and she 16 when they got married. They had five children together; Frans was the second child but the first male born to them and hence it is significant that he is the only child that made it into the painting.
It is remarkable how apparently visible love and tenderness are in Rubens’ expression as he looks at Helena. I don’t think I have seen a self-portrait, at least of this period, where the artist cast himself as being so mellowed in love. The glances and postures of both the male characters posit Helena as the goddess, the Sun that is the source of their happiness. Helena, on the other hand, gazes down towards her son and is gracefully aware of the affection that is her due.
Even without knowing any of the backstory, I’m well aware that this is a moment in the paradise of love. Perhaps it is the presence of the colourful macaw on the right hand side of the painting. A tropical bird in a Belgian household cannot be that usual a sight. The only puzzling figure is that of the caryatid on the left. According to Vitruvian principles, columns resembling women from the nations that Greece was at war with were most apt to bear the burden of an architectural structure. Though aesthetically pleasing, a caryatid has a sinister implication. Why would Rubens have it in this ode to love?
It was only during the third visit that I noticed that gallery 628 has other massive works by Rubens. I’m not sure how I didn’t register that. There are works by Anthony van Dyck, who was one of Rubens’ pupils, as well. He too seems to use rich blacks in his portraits. I have also realized that I have been taking the longest route to get to this gallery: it’s just straight up the Great Hall stairs and through gallery 600 and 601 and then through 625, 626 and 627, beyond all the ghoulish Netherlandish Christs and Virgins.
All of Rubens’ women resemble Helena, I think. Not really, but I can’t help seeing traces of her face in Mary and Atalanta. Mary appears in a work a titled The Holy Family with Saints Francis and Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist, a lush woman dressed elegantly unlike the other portrayals of the Virgin that cast her to be a suffering, unattractive maiden with her head covered by a veil. And then there is the 12th century saint Francis of Assisi, who seems to have time-travelled to be part of this happy family. It is, perhaps, all these features that make this work part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation style of painting that the artist was a champion of.
Atalanta appears in Atalanta and Meleager, an illustration of a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. She dominates the frame with her elegance and strength, while Meleager looks a little petulant, perhaps because he is aware of the misfortune that awaits him. A dead boar lies on Atalanta’s lap and a man, made grotesque by the effort, blows a trumpet. The trumpet blower seems to have crossed over to a large painting on the right called Wolf and Fox Hunt.
The Wolf and Fox Hunt was much bigger than what it is now. Rubens trimmed it from the top left side so that his client could accommodate it in his house. It’s a magnificent work but the colours seem a bit off or at least not as luminescent as the others. It’s a brutal scene with the wolves being circled and then attacked with spears. For all the violence, I can just see two small spots of blood on the canvas. The wall text informs that the painting was made by Rubens along with his assistants and that the wolves were painted by Rubens himself. One of the wolves has an unnaturally large shoulder. It’s twisted in trying to protect itself.
There is a portrait of one of Helena’s sisters to the left of Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment (1614–1673), and Their Son Frans (1633–1678). She is dressed in shimmering black too. The top layer of her veil has faded a little to reveal the layer below. It gives her a 3D effect. I look around once more: there’s a dullness to the other works, irrespective of their size. Rich black fabrics and luminous female skins still stand out. Rubens painted his Helenas the best.
I really wish they would change the guard. I’m beginning to feel he remembers me or at least my notebook with its cover of printed hearts. He’s quite a stickler: don’t step there, don’t touch that. I arrange my coat, comb my hair and settle down to look at Rubens’ family portrait.
Today my eyes are constantly drawn to Rubens’ gentle gaze at Helena. I know that he reworked his look from looking dominating, from looking like the man, to looking caring and cared for. It’s difficult to describe what the look of love is but he has conjured it, painted it here. Maybe it’s the effect of his half closed and lopsided left eye and the angle of his gaze. It makes him look tender. How do you look tender in paint?
There’s a family that is standing in front of the painting right now: mother, father and an infant attached to the father by a baby carrier, a modern day version of a child on a leash. There’s something odd about Rubens’ shawl. On the upper part it appears to be shimmering purple and below just a swathe of brown. I notice the same brown in the background of the portrait of Helena’s sister. Maybe the colour is fading here too.
And then there’s that caryatid with her vacant eyes that seems to cast an unpleasantness in the garden in paradise. Something about this work gives it an air of an image that you would make of a time gone by: after the death of someone, when you remember someone in fondness. Rubens’ first wife Isabella was dead but Helena outlived Rubens. Then why this portrait? Was he scared of losing her? Why would he paint an ode to love that is tinged with nostalgia? Can you feel nostalgia for something you still have?
A whole group of kids have walked in and are commenting about how big Helena’s breasts look and are wondering if she is Rubens’ daughter till they read the text. Their boisterous discussion pins it down to paternal love. I look again. This is the fourth time I’m looking at this work. I don’t know how I hadn’t realized this before. How I could have been blind to it? I try to catch parts of their discussion but can’t understand as the sounds are bouncing off the brick walls. I need to think about his gaze. Is it just paternal? Of course, it’s more but why hadn’t I considered that aspect?
They’ve changed the guard. This time the room is crowded when I enter but everybody starts to leave as soon as I sit down and take out my notebook.
I’ve started reading an eponymously titled book on Rubens by Kristin Lohse Belkin, who is a Rubens specialist and has contributed to the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, an on-going series on the artist’s work. So far 29 books have been published as part of this series. I’m daunted by how overwhelmingly large Rubens’ oeuvre is and how eventful is life was since he also played the role of a diplomat during the long and destructive Thirty Years’ War.
In my research I have just come across the double portrait Rubens painted on the occasion of his first marriage. Titled The Artist and his Wife in a Honeysuckle Bower , the painting is rich in the detailing on both husband and wife’s costumes. The care and time spent in making this rather perfect work is evident. And there’s that vitality in the eyes of the sitters that is unique to young people in love, it’s a confidence that makes them sure that their love will enable them to outbrave everything that comes their way in life.
Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment (1614–1673), and Their Son Frans (1633–1678), on the other hand, has blurred contours and uneven brushstrokes. It’s more sombre. It’s ideal and yet not idealistic. It’s content and in the present. In both paintings, Rubens shows his relationship with the women by placing his hand below theirs. It’s a simple gesture that reiterates conjugal love but it stands out because it recurs even though there is a gap of more than 20 years between them. Rubens loved his women.
Lucas van Uffel looking at me through his portrait painted by Anthony van Dyck is my cue to turn left. “So, you are here today,” he turns back from his desk to say.
Last night I shut Belkin’s book after reading that this family portrait with the artist, Helena and Frans and another one that now hangs in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, were probably not painted by Rubens. Belkin doesn’t elaborate on this claim much but writes that because these are the only two works in all of Rubens’ family portraits, after his marriage to Helena, where the artist inserts himself, it raises doubts about who the author of these works is. Belkin believes that Helena was always Rubens’ object of affection and infatuation, never his partner (Belkin 1998, 253).
I can’t find a good image of the painting that is now at the Alte Pinakothek but in what I can find, the figure of Rubens is so oddly placed behind that of Helena that I can readily accept that the work is perhaps not by the artist. But could that be true of this painting at the Met?
The portrait has everything that one expects of a Rubens’ painting: allegory, classical sculpture in the background, rich costumes and the general bombast that is characteristic of Flemish Baroque. What we now call the Rubenesque nude comes from the artist’s study of Titian and his fascination for his wife’s fleshy sensuality. Maybe most of the painting was done by someone else but I feel certain that Helena was painted by Rubens. The Helena in this painting and the nude Helena wrapped in Fur both have precisely the same wispy hair around the back of the neck and the same high-set breasts. If Rubens’ painted the nude Helena then he probably painted this Helena too.
In any case, Rubens’ gaze is making more sense now. His paintings of his first wife Isabella Brant and his descriptions of her in his correspondence indicates that he loved her as much as he did his second wife. Part of his gaze here is about how fortunate he is to be twice lucky in marriage. It was unusual even for the time for a 53-year-old to marry a 16-year-old, and so part of the gaze is also an ageing man’s enthrallment by his young wife. Paintings don’t work according to our photographic imagination. They are allegorical, they tell a story, sometimes several stories. They are capricious. And so here we are in paradise: fecund with flora, fauna and water. A triangle of love and life with an ageing painter, a wife and mother – a black swan, belonging to the realm of the flora and fauna – and their child, robust as an apple.
There is an old man copying the portrait of Helena’s sister using coloured pencils. He sits on the bench mostly and sometimes stands closer to the painting to see the details more clearly. That makes two of us today with our books and our pencils.
I look up to the family and realise that this is the last time I am going to see them, at least for a considerable period of time, and well up. It surprises me that I still love this work even after noticing all its imperfections: the patches where the colours have blotched and faded, the portion of the sky that is starkly half blue and half yellow, amongst others.
I feel the need to weave a story from the threads of my own curiosity for the sake of closure.
Here stands Peter Paul Rubens born to a Protestant family that was persecuted by Catholics. When Rubens was around 10 years old, his dying father converted the family to Catholicism. This same Rubens, who became the most celebrated painter of the Catholic Counter Reformation. In 1635, when this family portrait was made, he isn’t just an ageing, frail man. He was wizened by his diplomatic career for a region that suffered long and painfully under emperors quibbling over sectarian religion. He has receded into the peace of his domestic life. With him, allegory too recedes to the edges. It is his wife’s body, extrapolated to include every woman’s body, which becomes the site of war and love. The traditional gods and goddesses of peace and wisdom – Erasmus, Eirênê and Minerva – are replaced with Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. And Helena was Rubens’ Venus. She is the mother being trampled upon in her efforts to protect her child in The Horrors of War and The Massacre of the Innocents. She, love, “may not be a potent force against the cruelties of war, but is the only force” (Belkin 1998, 294).
But this is a moment in paradise, away from those horrors, this perfect moment to be grateful for.
Belkin, Kristin Lohse. Rubens. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1998.