'The Fur' by Rubens: MA-XRF scanning reveals a 'suggestive' fountain

'Het Pelsken' (The Fur), Rubens' most remarkable and intimate portrait of his second wife Helena Fourment, revealed a stunning secret recently. Analysis by researchers at the University of Leuven and the University of Antwerp using ma-XRF scanning, an imaging technique that uses fluorescence to distinguish between the various layers and chemical elements of the painting, demonstrated that there was originally a fountain in the background on the right of the painting. It was a two-level fountain and reached to Helena’s shoulders, with the base adorned with a lion’s head, water streaming from its mouth. Of particular note is the sculpture on the pedestal of the fountain, which is of a little boy urinating. These hidden elements gave the portrait an explicit erotic connotation and that is most probably  the reason why they were overpainted in a later stage.

The Fur, a puzzling painting

This impressive portrait has captured the imagination of many because Rubens' wife is portrayed life-size, at full-length and single wrapped in a fur coat, while looking the beholder straigth in the eye. Art historians have puzzled over function and meaning of 'The Fur’ for decades. The measurments were requested by prof. Katlijne Van der Stighelen (KU Leuven) and she has interpreted the discovery in collaboration with Gerlinde Gruber from the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The peeing boy is a  motive that is known from Antiquity and often used by Renaissance painters such as Lorenzo Lotto and Michelangelo as a metaphor for lust and sexual unification. In this way, the discovery confirms the suspicion that this was originally a bedroom piece, intended only for the eyes of Rubens and his wife.

'The Fur' hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and is now on display in Antwerp for the exhibition Rubens in Private: the master portrays his family.

Rubens in Private: The master portrays his family

Until 28 June 2015 the Rubens House features a unique exhibition on Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) as a portrait painter of his family. These are the most beautiful and intimate of all Rubens’ portraits, and were not commissioned but painted out of love and served as keepsakes. The portraits are an important part of the artist’s personal life and each in turn are milestones in his artistic career. They also give us a perspective of the social standing of the Rubens family, and tell us something of the painter’s artistic and intellectual environment.

Rubens in Private: the master portrays his family contains an array of masterpieces from top international museums that, for the first time ever, have found their way home to what was once the Rubens residence. The exhibition is curated by international Rubens experts and includes some 50 paintings and drawings from top-ranking museums, including the Uffizi in Florence, the British Museum in London, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein, and the Royal Collection, generously loaned by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

More information

More information on Rubens in Private, as well as on the Rubens House itself, can be found here.


Illustration: Peter Paul Rubens, Helena Fourment in a fur coat (‘Het Pelsken’), approx. 1630, MA-XRF scans, images from Geert Van der Snickt