Two happy marriages fell to the lot of Rubens. His first union was with Isabella Brant, and took place in 1609, when the painter was thirty-two and his bride eighteen years old. After living together in peace and mutual content for over sixteen years, the couple were separated by death, who claimed Isabella as his own in 1626. Her loss was deeply felt and sincerely mourned by Rubens, as can well be seen in the following lines taken from a letter he wrote to his friend Dupuy soon after Isabella’s decease:
“In truth I have lost an excellent companion, and one worthy of all affection, for she had none of the faults of her sex. Never displaying bitterness or weakness, her kindness and loyalty were perfect ; and her rare qualities, having made her beloved during her life, have caused her to be regretted by all after her death. Such a loss, it seems to me, ought to be deeply felt, and since the only remedy for all evil is the oblivion that time brings, I must undoubtedly look to time for consolation. But it will be very difficult for me to separate the grief caused by this bereavement, from the memory of one whom I must respect and honor as long as I live. A journey might perhaps serve to take me away from the sight of the many objects which necessarily renew my grief, for she alone still fills my henceforth empty house, she alone lies by my side on my desolate couch ; whereas the new sights that a journey affords occupy the imagination and furnish no material for the regrets that are for ever springing up in one’s heart. But I should travel in vain, for I shall have myself for companion everywhere.”
Four years passed, and Rubens again sought matrimonial happiness. His first wife had been his niece by marriage, and so, curiously enough, was his second spouse, Helena Fourment, whom he married on December 6, 1630. She was a girl of six-teen, he a man of fifty-three, handsome, famous, ennobled, well-to-do, and gouty.
Paul Mantz says : “From the day of his marriage with his second wife, Helena Fourment, on the 6th,. of December, 1630, a sort of St. Martin’s summer began in Rubens’s life, and seemed to lend to his heart and to his genius the impulse of another springtime. Apparently, too, he was eager to share the delight he took in her with all the world, and she was for many years, and, indeed, to the end of his life, continually in his mind and in his eyes. He never wearied of reproducing her young grace. The portraits of her are numberless.”
Houbraken, speaking of her beauty, called her a new Helen, and said that she was a valuable possession for the artist, ” since she spared him the expense of other models.” It is certain that her portrait, more or less exact, may be seen in many of the ideal works produced by her husband after their marriage. In these Helena’s fair face looks out at us from under many an alias now as St. Cecilia before her organ, now as Andromeda chained to the rock, or as the despairing Dido about to stab herself. Again, she masquerades as a Bathsheba or Susanna, as nymph or shepherdess, or as one of the charming dames in the ” Garden of Love” of the Prado, that masterpiece which Philip IV. so treasured. Like Rembrandt’s beloved Saskia, Rubens’s Helena dominates her husband’s brush, but, more fortunate than the great Dutchman, the great Fleming was permitted to cherish his adored model to the end of his days.
“A fine picture in the Munich Gallery represents both husband and wife in the early period of their marriage, walking in the garden of their house. The artist wears a broad-brimmed felt hat, and a black doublet striped with gray. The refined, intelligent head, the proudly turned up moustaches, the attractive countenance, the distinguished bearing, incline us to regard him as a young man ; a few silver threads in the fair beard show us our mistake. His arm is in Helena’s ; she is painted almost full face, and her pink complexion is protected from the sun by a large straw hat. She looks delightfully ingenuous in all the bloom of her sixteen years. Her hair, with its golden reflected lights, is cut in a fringe over the forehead like that of a boy, and escapes round her face in fair curls. Her black bodice opens over a chemisette ; her dull yellow skirt is turned up over a gray petticoat, and a white apron falls over both. She holds a feather fan in her hand, and a pearl necklace sets off the whiteness of her throat. She half turns toward a young page, entirely dressed in red, who follows her bareheaded. The couple approach a portico, beneath which a table is spread beside the statues and busts which decorate it ; some bottles have been set to cool in a large basin on the ground. The building, so fantastic in its architecture, which is an eccentric mixture of Italian style and Flemish taste, is the pavilion the artist erected in his garden not far from the house, and often introduced in his pictures. Near at hand an old woman feeds two peacocks ; a turkey-cock struts about with his spouse, and a friendly dog runs after their young ,ones. The air is warm, the lilacs are in bloom ; the young orange-trees have been released from their winter quarters, and the flower-beds are gay with many-colored tulips. At the side, the waters of a fountain, like-wise found in many of Rubens’s pictures, fall into a basin. The pair are about to seat themselves under this portico, surrounded by these domestic animals, with the blue sky and the flowers before their eyes, wholly given up to a happiness which is echoed in the holiday mood of surrounding nature.
“When we have thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful picture, our eyes involuntarily turn to the other canvas in the same room of the gallery, in which, on an equally fine spring day, Rubens painted himself in a honeysuckle arbor with his wife Isabella, whom he had so affectionately loved, who was so intimately associated with his life, and whose loss he deplored four years earlier in the touching letter to Dupuy quoted above. In the same involuntary fashion it occurs to us that the former marriage was better assorted ; the intellectual sympathy must have been greater than it could have been with a young girl who passed so suddenly from the seclusion of her father’s house to so conspicuous a position. It would be interesting to learn something of Helena’s character, of her culture and education, of her influence on the great man who loved her. But no information on these points is to be found either in the acts of her life, in Rubens’s correspondence, or in the testimony of contemporaries. But the large number of portraits of her that Rubens painted bear eloquent witness to the strength and persistence of his love. There is scarcely a gallery of importance without a portrait of her, and at Munich there are four.”
One of these shows Madame Rubens, at full length, sitting clothed in green and violet, with her little son, nude save for a black cap and feather, on her lap. Another presents her seated facing us in an armchair under a colonnade, with an Eastern rug beneath her feet a purple drapery hangs behind her, her dress of black satin opens over an underskirt of white silk brocade embroidered with gold. A high lace collar, feathered fan, pearl necklace, and jewelled stomacher complete the sumptuous picture.
She appears again in a full-length portrait in the Louvre, seated, embracing her little son, her infant daughter standing by. The same child is seen once more in a picture belonging to Baron Alphonse de Rothschild, which is called ” Rubens and his wife teaching one of their children to walk.” In the Louvre example, Helena wears a white dress and a gray felt hat with plumes ; in Baron Rothschild’s canvas, her gown is of black velvet. The baron also owns a full-length portrait of Rubens’s second wife in a Spanish dress of black satin with lilac ribbons, attended by a page dressed in red. For these two pictures, which were formerly at Blenheim, Baron Rothschild paid the Duke of Marlborough £55,000.
The royal collection at Windsor has a beautiful half-length portrait of Helena holding her hands crossed in front of her. In this she wears a yellow satin dress with slashed sleeves, a black mantle, a rich lace ruff, and a pearl necklace. St. Petersburg preserves a fine full-length of her standing with a fan in her hand, and at Vienna is the celebrated picture called ” The Pelisse ”
showing Helena on her way to the bath, clad only in a fur-trimmed cloak. This portrait Rubens always retained, and at his death in 1640 he specially bequeathed it to his widow, who, by the way, married again in 1645. She was only twenty-six at the time of the death of Rubens, by whom she became the mother of five children, and her second husband was one Jean Baptiste van Brockhoven, an Antwerp alderman and man of rank and substance. Helena survived her first husband many years, not dying until 1673.
Finally we are reminded that the master’s picture of “The Virgin and Saints,” which forms the altar-piece of the Rubens chapel in the church of St. Jacques at Antwerp, is said to contain portraits of both the wives of Rubens, who has there represented himself as St. George. In this chapel the illustrious painter was interred.