The enigma of Rubens’ Portrait of a Young Woman

The enigma of Rubens’ Portrait of a Young Woman

She is dressed in the height of Spanish fashion — then also popular in Italian courts — and her identity is unknown. Alastair Smart pieces together the clues behind this ‘wonderfully spontaneous’ portrait dating to Rubens’ early travelling years

The rise of Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was little short of meteoric. In the final years of the 16th century, he was a barely known apprentice painter in Antwerp; by the early years of the 17th century, he’d become a prized painter at the court of Mantua.

Vincenzo I Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, owned an art collection as splendid as any outside the Vatican and paid Rubens a salary of 400 ducats a year. In return, the latter — still in his mid-twenties — painted pictures, managed the duke’s collection and organised court festivities. In 1603, he was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Spanish king, Philip III, in Valladolid.

Peter Paul Rubens, Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma, 1603. Oil on canvas, 290.5 x 207.5 cm. Image Museo Nacional del Prado © Photo MNP  Scala, Florence
Peter Paul Rubens, Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma, 1603. Oil on canvas, 290.5 x 207.5 cm. Image: Museo Nacional del Prado © Photo MNP / Scala, Florence

He bore gifts for the monarch and his courtiers that included several paintings. None of these was by Rubens’ own hand — however, a journey marked by 25 consecutive days’ rain all but ruined them, leaving Rubens the task of repairing the damage.

His work so impressed the Spaniards that it led to one of his greatest commissions, Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma (1603), above: a depiction of the king’s favourite on horseback, which today resides in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

It is possible that he may have painted Portrait of a Young Woman Holding a Chain (below) — which is being offered in London on 29 July as part of Classic Week — during his few months in Spain.

‘The wonderfully spontaneous execution makes it feel very modern,’ says Clementine Sinclair, Head of the Christie’s Classic Art Evening Sale. ‘It’s also from a crucial period in Rubens’ career’. 

In a bid to further his education, Rubens had left Antwerp for Venice in 1600. With its bravura brushstrokes and striking chiaroscuro, this portrait proves how fast he absorbed the influence of Venetian masters such as Titian and Veronese. (It was in Venice that he met Gonzaga, who duly invited him to move to Mantua.)

The subject is dramatically lit, her face and hands captured in creamy impasto brushwork. The way she clasps the chain hanging from her neck creates a sense of stillness. Likewise the way she gazes firmly at us.

The period in question, 1600-1608, was a formative spell, often described as one in which a master was in the making

Sadly, her identity is unknown. Fashion historians say the distinctive ruff rising to a point above her head was en vogue  in Spain at the turn of the 17th century. Which makes a strong case for the picture dating to Rubens’ time in Valladolid.

Its edges are ochre-brown, the colour of the ground layer. This — alongside other factors, such as the execution of the sitter’s dress — suggests that the portrait was left unfinished, or perhaps was an oil sketch, painted quickly from life to serve as the model for a more finished portrait.

We know that Gonzaga asked Rubens to paint the portrait of a number of ladies at the Spanish court, intending them to be hung in a ‘Gallery of Beauties’ back at the ducal palace in Mantua. None of these survives, but it’s tantalising to think that the work coming to auction may have served as the study for one such portrait, which Rubens planned to complete on return from Spain.

It’s worth stressing now that few, if any, artists have deemed the painted oil sketch more important in their creative process than Rubens. Before him, drawing had always been the main preparatory method for executing a painting.

Peter Paul Rubens, Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria, 1606. Oil on canvas, 152.5 x 99 cm. Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.60. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
Peter Paul Rubens, Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria, 1606. Oil on canvas, 152.5 x 99 cm. Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.60. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Rubens travelled a great deal on Gonzaga’s behalf. As well as Spain, he visited Italian cities such as Rome, Florence, and the mercantile hub of Genoa.

It’s possible that he painted the current work during a stay in Genoa in early 1606. He’s known to have produced many portraits of aristocratic ladies there, most famously that of Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria, above, today kept in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Unlike his previous pictures, those painted in Genoa boast a deep tonality — a feature noticeable in Portrait of a Young Woman, Half-Length, Holding a Chain, too. The city also had strong ties with Spain, so it’s conceivable that Spanish fashions (such as the high ruff) would have made their way there.

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Perhaps it doesn’t matter precisely where Rubens painted this canvas: in Valladolid or Genoa. What matters is the dramatic execution and the sitter’s psychological depth. ‘By this point, Rubens’ talent has really asserted itself,’ Sinclair says. ‘He ended up being a prolific artist with a huge oeuvre, but works from his early period [in Italy and briefly Spain] are quite rare.’

The period in question lasted from 1600 to 1608, the year Rubens returned to Antwerp for good. It was a formative spell, often described as one in which a master was in the making. With this portrait of a young lady, one might well argue that the master was newly made.