The richly dressed young woman depicted here, holding a prayer book in one hand and drawing back her veil with the other, is Helen Fourment (1614-1673). The daughter of an Antwerp silk merchant, she married Peter Paul Rubens in 1630 when she was 16 and Rubens, a widower, was 53. Rubens shows her as near life size, rendered in a delicate combination of subtly handled black, red and white chalks, celebrating her beauty and his own skill as an artist. Her pompom-topped cap with a veil attached was known as a huyck; although fashionable as an outdoor accessory, its presence in a portrait is highly unusual. Rubens derived Helena's apparently natural gesture of lifting her veil, expressing modesty, from a celebrated classical sculpture, the Venus Pudica ('modest Venus'). The drawing thus serves both as a portrait of a real, living woman and as an evocation of ideal beauty and marital virtue.


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