This intimate portrait probably represents a sister of Helena Fourment, Rubens’s second wife and the youngest of the Antwerp silk merchant Daniel Fourment’s seven daughters. Most scholars favor an identification with Susanna Fourment (1599–1628), who married Arnold Lunden in 1622. Another Rubens portrait is thought to depict Clara Fourment (born 1593) and reveals a family resemblance, but the faces of four Fourment sisters remain unknown. The present figure is richly dressed in a manner no widow—to dismiss another theory—would consider. The veil, similar to a Spanish mantilla, was shifted by Rubens in the course of work and its earlier contours have become visible over time.
When this portrait was first cited in print, the sitter was not unreasonably called Rubens’s second wife, Helena Fourment; there is something to be said for the resemblance between the sitter and Helena, who is depicted in Rubens’s self-portrait with his wife and son of about 1635 (The Met, 1981.238). Scholars, however, quickly rejected this identification, and most of them now agree that it represents Helena’s sister Susanna. Long before Rubens married Helena, the sisters were on close terms with the painter’s family because their eldest brother, Daniel Fourment (1592–1648), was married to Rubens’s first wife’s sister, Clara Brandt. In 1617 Susanna Fourment married Raymond del Monte, who left her a widow four years later; their only child, Clara (1618–1657), married Albert (1614–1657), Rubens’s eldest son from his first marriage. Susanna’s second husband was Rubens’s good friend Arnold Lunden.
Susanna actually had six sisters: in addition to Helena, there were Clara (b. 1593), Joanna (b. 1596), Maria (b. 1601), Catherina (b. 1603), and Elizabeth (b. 1609). Rubens painted a portrait of Clara and as many as seven of Susanna (four of them are listed in the inventory of the artist’s possessions at the time of his death). No portrait of Clara has ever been identified, and there is no documented portrait by Rubens of Susanna, but Gustav Glück advanced the hypothesis that her features can be recognized in several paintings and drawings by Rubens. Among the generally accepted portraits of Susanna are a half-length likeness in the Louvre and a drawing in the Albertina, Vienna. Moreover, Susanna Fourment is plausibly believed to have been the model for both a painting by Rubens of a shepherdess and the Chapeau de paille, Rubens’s masterpiece of the early 1620s now in the National Gallery, London. A full-length seated portrait by Van Dyck of a young woman with a little child, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, also represents Susanna.
Technical evidence supports the identification of the sitter in the present portrait as Susanna Fourment. Radiographs reveal that initially Rubens did not intend to show her wearing a veil. Instead, he began by painting her hair combed back behind the ear in the Antwerp fashion of the early 1620s. Not only is the ear completely visible, but a pendant pearl earring can also be seen; Susanna wears the same kind of earring in the Albertina drawing. In that work the head is seen from almost the same angle as it is in The Met's painting, making the resemblances between the drawing and the x-ray image even more suggestive. The drawing might even be a preliminary study for the portrait, which Rubens then changed when he added the veil and the hand holding it back.
Although The Met's portrait has been dated as early as 1612 and as late as 1635, its style falls between these two extremes. It is painted in the solid, unbroken manner characteristic of the beginning of Rubens’s middle period, the time of his Jesuit Church altarpieces. The modeling of the flesh and the fluid treatment of the veil are altogether looser than the firm handling of paint seen, for example, in Rubens’s portrait of Emperor Augustus, executed in 1619 and formerly in the Bildergalerie von Sanssouci, Potsdam.
The dating in the mid-1620s suggested by style is supported by two biographical facts: first, as Susanna was born in 1599, she would have been in her early twenties at the time of the painting (and while it is admittedly difficult to judge precisely the age of people in seventeenth-century portraits, the sitter does appear to be in her early twenties); second, Susanna wedded her second husband on March 8, 1622, so the ring prominently displayed in the painting might refer to this marriage. While some scholars have associated the somber black dress and veil with mourning, following the death, probably in 1621, of Susanna’s first husband, the gold-lace fringe on the veil is in fact typical of Spanish mantillas fashionable in countries under Spanish domination. Besides, both the string of pearls and the sitter’s fetching smile would be inappropriate for a widow.
[2015; adapted from Fahy 2005]
Joanna Ludovica Josepha du Bois, Antwerp (until 1777; her estate sale, Antwerp, July 7, 1777, no. 1, for fl. 1,900); comtesse d'Oultremont (by 1831–her d.; upon division of her property, to du Bois d'Edeghem); comtesse du Bois d'Edeghem; baron Gustave de Rothschild, Paris (bought in Paris between 1865 and 1870; given to Leonino); his daughter, baronne Berthe Juliette Leonino (until d. 1896); her daughter, baronne Antoinette Leonino (until 1959; sold to Hoogendijk); [D. A. Hoogendijk, Amsterdam, 1959–66; sold to Wrightsman]; Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, New York (1966–76; cat., 1973, no. 21)
Karl Woermann. Katalog der Königlichen Gemäldegalerie zu Dresden. Dresden, 1887, p. 317, under no. 971, cites it as better, according to Max Rooses, than the portrait in Dresden.
Max Rooses. L'Oeuvre de P. P. Rubens. Vol. 4, Antwerp, 1890, pp. 162–63, no. 938, as in the collection of baron Gaston [sic] de Rothschild; identifies the sitter as Helena Fourment, calls it entirely by Rubens, dates it about 1635, and gives provenance information.
Karl Woermann. Katalog der Königlichen Gemäldegalerie zu Dresden. 2nd ed. Dresden, 1892, p. 319, under no. 971, calls it an autograph work of which the Dresden portrait is a repetition.
W[oldemar]. v[on]. Seidlitz. "Review of Woermann 1892." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 16 (1893), p. 375, rejects an identification of the sitter as Helena Fourment [see Ref. Rooses 1890].
Max Rooses. Rubens. London, 1904, vol. 2, p. 606 [French ed., "Rubens, sa vie et ses oeuvres," (1900–1903)], as a portrait of Helena Fourment wearing "a mantilla with a gold border, Spanish-fashion".
Adolf Rosenberg. P. P. Rubens, des Meisters Gemälde. 1st ed. Stuttgart, 1905, p. 482, ill. p. 331 [4th ed. by Rudolf Oldenbourg, 1921, p. 491, ill. p. 58], rejects Rooses's [see Refs. 1890 and 1904] identification of the sitter as Helena Fourment; dates it about 1630–35.
Emil Schaeffer. Van Dyck, des Meisters Gemälde. 1st ed. Stuttgart, 1909, p. 518, as a portrait of Helena Fourment by Rubens.
Edward Dillon. Rubens. London, , p. 223, pl. 294, attributes it entirely to Rubens, dates it 1620–30, and calls it "Portrait of a Lady".
Rudolf Oldenbourg. P. P. Rubens, des Meisters Gemälde. 4th ed. [1st ed. 1905]. Stuttgart, 1921, p. 491, ill. p. 58 [1st ed. by Adolf Rosenberg, 1905, p. 482, ill. p. 331], dates it about 1612 and calls it "Portrait of a Lady".
Rudolf Oldenbourg. Peter Paul Rubens. Ed. Wilhelm von Bode. Munich, 1922, pp. 142, 144, rejects the identification as Helena Fourment and suggests a date of about 1614.
August L. Mayer. "The Portrait of Helene Fourment in a Black Mantilla by Rubens." Burlington Magazine 67 (November 1935), p. 224, publishes a replica (private collection, France) that "betrays in every way its superiority to the Rothschild [MMA] panel"; states that Ludwig Burchard believes that the MMA work, while inferior to this replica, may also be genuine, "although its present condition does not permit a definite judgment".
Jacob Burckhardt. Rubens. Vienna, 1938, p. 201 n. 90, p. 436, ill. p. 174, calls it "Woman with a Pearl Necklace" and dates it about 1612.
Julius S. Held. Letter to Anne Poulet. November 28, 1967, believes it to represent Susanna Fourment and dates it to the early 1620s; proposes that the veil is a sign of mourning, as Susanna's first husband died before 1621.
Michael Jaffé. Letter to Theodore Rousseau. January 25, 1968, states that it surely does not represent Helena Fourment and that it is possible, though not entirely convincing, that the sitter is Susanna Fourment; from reproductions, suggests a date in the mid-1630s.
Stella Mary Newton. Letter to Anne Poulet. April 5, 1968, states that the sitter's veil is Indian in type, and certainly does not indicate mourning; on the basis of costume tentatively dates it about 1620 but suggests that it was started during one period and finished at another.
Stella Mary Newton. Letter to Anne Poulet. June 5, 1968, responding to changes revealed by x-ray photographs, suggests that the picture was left unfinished by Rubens and taken up later by another hand; states that the veil and hairdressing seem "against the taste of the seventeenth century".
Denys Sutton. "Pleasure for the Aesthete." Apollo 90 (September 1969), pp. 230, 232, no. 5, ill. p. 233.
Everett Fahy inThe Wrightsman Collection. Vol. 5, Paintings, Drawings. [New York], 1973, pp. 195–204, no. 21, ill. p. 197 (color), figs. 1–3 (details), 5 (x-radiograph detail), identifies the sitter as probably Susanna Fourment, dates it about 1620, and suggests that a drawing of the same sitter in the Albertina, Vienna, may be a study for the picture.
Katharine Baetjer inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1975–1979. New York, 1979, p. 50, ill.
Walter A. Liedtke. "Flemish Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum—I: Rubens." Tableau 6 (November/December 1983), pp. 85–87, fig. 7.
Walter A. Liedtke. Flemish Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1984, vol. 1, pp. 172–76; vol. 2, colorpl. XII, pl. 65, observes that elegant black dress of this kind was common in countries under Spanish domination or influence, and does not imply mourning, as has been suggested [see Ref. Held 1967]; adds that the absence of a wedding or engagement ring can also not be used to date the portrait, as "the wearing of rings, whether wedding rings or not, was the exception rather than the rule"; on the basis of costume, the sitter's appearance, and the style of the picture, suggests a date of about 1625–26, when Rubens was especially active as a portraitist, particularly of his family and friends.
Michael Jaffé. Rubens: catalogo completo. Milan, 1989, p. 297, no. 867, ill., dates it 1625–28.
Introduction by Walter A. Liedtke inFlemish Paintings in America: A Survey of Early Netherlandish and Flemish Paintings in the Public Collections of North America. Antwerp, 1992, pp. 26, 362, no. 416, ill.
Everett Fahy inThe Wrightsman Pictures. Ed. Everett Fahy. New York, 2005, pp. 114–17, no. 33, ill. (color) and fig. 1 (radiograph detail).