RUBENS, Peter Paul
(b. 1577, Siegen, d. 1640, Antwerpen)

The Fur ("Het Pelsken")

Oil on wood, 176 x 83 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

In this painting the artist portrayed his second wife, Helene Fourment nude but for a fur. This was certainly his favourite among the many paintings exhibiting her undeniable charms. At all events, he refused to part with Het Pelsken. In tones worthy of Titian, he painted Helene with curly hair, her nipples erect, her nudity barely concealed by a fur wrap better suited to her husband's bulk than her own. Her expression is difficult to read: is her mutinous air intended as a provocation, or was she simply anxious to wrap herself up against the cold?

Nudity as an attribute of mythological beauty, which provided its "justification", was by no means new, but for Rubens the unusual picture of the naked Helene is exclusively private in character. Helene is standing on a red cloth and is wrapping herself, apparently spontaneously with a white cloth and a fur cloak. She is holding both in such a way that each arm crosses in front of her body covering the pelvic region, but pushing her breasts up in the crook of her right arm. Here, together with the face, the intimate gaze of the painter is betrayed. The title Het Pelsken ("The Little Fur") is due to Rubens himself, who described the painting thus in his will. He bequeathed it as a separate item to his wife and also stipulated expressly that it should not be offset against her official share of his estate. It was only after her death in 1658 that it passed into other hands.