Enjoying, and sharing, life's blessings
This is not exactly the 17th-century equivalent of a family snapshot, but part of it scharm undoubtedly lies in its being an accurate record of Rubens and his very young second wife "promenading" in their garden: of the relaxed and comparatively private life of this very public artist. For the painter who conceived and executed some of the grandest, largest Baroque works north of Italy, this glimpse of home life is remarkably unpretentious and intimate. It is far more Dutch than Italian in the normal, everyday character of its subject, and in the size of the figures in relation to their setting. I almost feel it was affectionately painted form -- as well as paying tribute to the beauty of -- the girl who was to appear in an astounding variety of guises for the next 10 years in Rubens's pictures: this is Helene Fourment as herself.
There are other direct portraits of her by her husband, of course, gorgeous celebrations of his love for her, but none has the gentle innocence of this one, or suggests the tenderness of their relationship at the very outset.The son, Nicolas, included in the picture, is one of his lamented first wife's family, and he seems to be honoring Helene with the freedom of the Antwerp estate in the same courteous manner as his father -- rather like an attendant page.
And it really is an accurate portrayal of Rubens's garden: the Baroque-classical pavilion, almost a "folly," is not a painter's invention; it existed. As Wolfgang Stechow points out, this, and the other additions the artist had built onto his "palatial house in Antwerp," reflect "the fact, which by now should not surprise anyone, that Rubens was a gifted architect on the side; an enthusiastic admirer of the early Baroque architecture he had encountered in the city of Genoa during his Italian years and of its more recent development; the author and publisher, at his own cost, of a precious illustrated volume on those Genoese palaces." No doubt the old servant, feeding the peacocks and other fowl, is also a faithful portrait. The deferential posture of this figure, as well as the age, is subtly used by Rubens to another end.
He was never an unkind self-portraitist. The act of painting his home life was also an outward, self-conscious gesture -- it was presenting an image to the world. He definitely did not want that image to be unflattering. The unusually large difference in age between him and his wife (though it evidently in no way spoiled the happiness of their marriage) was probably not something he wished to overemphasize. Helene seems to turn back towards childhood when she looks away in the direction of Nicolas. On Rubens' side is the aged servant. He himself is in the middle, handsome and gallant, a slightly knowing humour in his eyes, almost hiding behind his wife. She, indeed, dominates the scene. Taking her by the arm, he guides her towards either the garden or the pavilion, his other hand pointing the way: in the lightest possible manner (particularly in comparison with Rubens's later "Garden of Love" in Madrid, which is a far more sumptuous allegory,m richly Baroque, of amorous intent), he here does little more than hint at the symbols of courtship, of wooing and winning.
It is all very "courtly" and courteous (though he deliberately chose Helene from an "honest but middle-class family, although everyone tried to persuade me to a court marriage"), and it seems to me to evoke -- though in totally different terms from Rubens's free and thrilling observations of nature -- something medieval. The leaping dog, the unconcerned birds, the foliage and flowers, the richly costumed girl, the man "offering his heart" -- all these could be found in the gardens and forests of the tapestries of the Middle Ages, where noblemen elegantly sue for the affection of fair ladies, and flowers and birds and rabbits and springtime are woven into every spare corner of the fabric.
"I am leading a quiet life with my wife and children," Rubens wrote in a letter not many years later, "and have no pretensions in the world other than to live in peace." This delightful painting supports his contention admirably.