Museum and Exhibitions: another Manneken

As mentioned in earlier posts, the Rubenshuis Museum hosts a temporary exhibition focussing on Rubens’ family portraits. It does not include all the portraits he made of his friends. Nor are all the portraits he made of his family on show. Last time I saw one of my favourite Rubens paintings exhibited in this very museum, was ages ago. “Het Pelsken” or “The Fur”, is still hanging in Vienna.

It is a highly private portrait Rubens made of his second wife. It certainly was not meant to be seen by all and sundry. It’s all about Helene Fourment and the fur she uses to partly cover herself. Or so we see it now.

Staff of Leuven University and of Antwerp University in Belgium, recently were given permission to scan the “Pelsken” now hanging in Vienna. They made quite an astonishing discovery. With their equipment they were able to look through the upper layers of paint. They discovered a kind of Manneken Pis has been painted over.

What does a statue like Manneken Pis, now standing in Brussels, do in this painting created in Antwerp centuries earlier? Well, according to experts the painted over Manneken symbolises lust, marriage, youth, fertility. The now blotted out part of this portrait would have made it an even more erotic painting, than it already is.

Helene is not painted as a chaste, but as a very seductive and sexy Venus. Shocking? Perhaps, but remember: this portrait was intended for Peter Paul and Helene’s bedroom.

It was definitely not to be seen by and shared with museum visitors. Did Helene ask her husband to blot out the fountain with the Manneken? Or did Rubens decide the painting was erotic enough without it?

Whatever: this painting is now too fragile to be lent to exhibitions. In the Rubenshuis, a banner depicting it hangs in the last attic room. In this room, there are several samples of Rubens’ letters – in various languages. The main focus of the exhibition are, however, the portraits.

As mentioned in earlier posts, the exhibition shows you about thirty portraits. The first attic room goes into Rubens’ family tree. Here you find paintings of ancestors.

Then follow the rooms with portraits of friends and his brother. After these follow rooms displaying portraits of Rubens wives, children, and himself. Somehow, the portrait of Clara Serena aged about twelve enthralls me. I keep coming back to it time and again.

A few portraits of Clara Serena’s mother, Isabella Brandt, are also delightful. The portrait by van Dijck somehow seems a bit over the top. However, a sketch of her by Rubens does impress. The best portrait is the one which normally hangs in New York. It captures Isabella as a jolly, funny, yet firm and strong woman. Interestingly, as with the Clara Serena portrait, one of the Isabella Brandt portraits may have been painted posthumously.

Somehow, Helene Fourment, Rubens’ second wife, pales beside her. Where Isabelle sparkles and is very present in the portraits, Helene seems sweet, timid, and practically bland. Though of course … with the “Pelske” … she can’t have been bland or dull at all.

Helene married Rubens when she was just sixteen. She became his widow when she was twenty-six and had a posthumous child. She managed the estate and after a few years married again. She and her second husband had several children. Helene died and was buried in the Rubens chapel of the Saint Jacob church in Antwerp, which can still be visited.

The fascinating temporary exhibition can be visited till the end of June. As stated in a previous post, the museum is not easily accessible for all. For more information: Rubenshuis.

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