As Nick is leaving Stourwater, Jean Duport somewhat awkwardly invites Nick to “dinner, or something,” with her husband Bob Duport. Nick reflects on Jean’s manner: “she reminded me of some picture. Was it Rubens and Le Chapeau de Paille: his second wife or her sister? There was that same suggestion, though only for an instant, of shyness and submission.” [BM 226/216]
Le Chapeau de Paille is the title given to the 1625 portrait by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) of Susanna Lunden, the older sister of Helena Fourment, Rubens’ second wife. Some historians have posited that the painting may in fact be a portrait of Helena herself, though if so, it would have been painted before they were married. In any case, Rubens has created the image of a beguiling beauty who peers out at the viewer from under the shade of her chapeau with a shy but unremitting gaze. This beloved portrait, now in the National Gallery in London, is by no means the kind of complex composition for which Rubens is esteemed, but it exemplifies his uncanny ability to whip up a Baroque fantasy of swirling costume, clouds and sky that nevertheless maintains its still center in his sitter’s enigmatic personality.
Rubens is the pre-eminent artist of the Flemish Baroque, or indeed of the whole of European art of the period, since he accomplished a synthesis of the Northern tradition with that of the Italian Renaissance masters whom he studied closely. Based in Antwerp during his maturity, Rubens headed a school there, what we might call a factory, where he produced not only portraits but religious altar pieces. history paintings, scenes from classical mythology, and allegorical landscapes. His work was largely produced in the service of the royal houses of Europe, and his prodigious output now graces the museums and private collections of every European capital. In his “spare” time, Rubens served as private diplomat for Isabella, the sovereign of the Netherlands, in her elaborately complex dealings with Spain, England, and France.
Nick allows that “Perhaps it was the painter’s first wife that Jean resembled, though slighter in build. After all, I recalled, they were aunt and nieces.” Here he is referring to Isabella Brandt, Rubens’ beloved first wife, who died in 1626. There are several portraits of Isabella Brandt, but no doubt Nick is thinking of this superb drawing in the British Museum. Here Isabella’s resemblance to her niece Susanna is apparent, but the younger woman’s shyness is replaced by Isabella’s confidence, strengthened by Rubens’ remarkable ability to virtually project the head out from the weave of the paper on which it is drawn.