PAUL PETER RUBENS
Study of a female figure (Hélène Fourment)
Black, white and red chalk
Inv. No. 846
56.5 × 32 cm
In 1630, ten years before his death, Peter Paul Rubens – at that time probably the most famous and most sought-after painter in Europe – married the beautiful young daughter of an Antwerp merchant, Hélène Fourment (1614–1673). His first wife had died some years earlier. The happiness of this late second marriage inspired him to create the magnificent painting The Garden of Love, now in the Prado in Madrid. It shows happy couples enjoying each other’s company in an Arcadian setting. Rubens himself is seen introducing his young wife to this company of lovers.
The Städel Museum’s chalk drawing is a study for the figure of Hélène Fourment in the Garden of Love. The emphasis, however, is not on creating a portrait; rather, Rubens focuses on the harmonious balance of the woman’s form as she steps hesitantly forward, and on the texture of the material of her richly billowing gown. There is nothing exploratory about his rendition of the opulence and lively movement of the fabric: with consummate command of his artistic resources he applied the chalk in free, rapid strokes, making skilful use of blank areas of the paper and adding only a few touches of heightening in white. The head and face are sketched in with a few delicate lines; a light shading in red chalk over the face evokes the timid self-consciousness of the beloved bride.
This superb drawing, possibly the loveliest of the surviving studies for the Garden of Love, comes from the collection of the Städel’s founder, who acquired it towards the end of the eighteenth or beginning of the nineteenth century. It demonstrates in exemplary fashion that Johann Friedrich Städel not only aimed to assemble works by the most important artists to form a visual history of art, but, in the process, also proved to possess a sure eye for outstanding quality and singularity.