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Portrait of a lady, probably Isabella Brant (1591-1626), as a shepherdess

Portrait of a lady, probably Isabella Brant (1591-1626), as a shepherdess
oil on panel
26 1/4 x 20 1/2 in. (66.6 x 52.4 cm.)
(Probably) with the Antwerp picture dealers Pilaer and Beeckmans in 1785 (a letter dated 5 August 1785 describes the work as ‘Nous venons de faire la plus belle acquisition possible d’un beau Rubens, c’est le portrait de Helena Froment (sic),…elle est vêtue en bergère avec un chapeau de paille, on voit le corps en profil et elle a la tête tournée aux spectateurs…et paraît être peinte à l'âge de 16 à 18 ans…’ [mss. in the Rembrandt-Huis, Amsterdam]), by whom sold on 23 October 1785 to,
(Probably) M. Dulac (probably the dealer Daignez-Dulac], Paris.
Jean Gilles Marie Joseph Schamp d'Aveschoot (1765-1839), Ghent, by 1830; his sale (†), van Regemorter, Ghent, 14 September 1840, lot C (unsold), by descent in the Schamp d’Averschoot family.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2009.
J. Smith, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish, and French Painters, II, London, 1830, p. 261, no. 882, as depicting Helena Fourment; Supplement, IX, 1842, p. 272, no. 103, as a copy.
M. Rooses, L’Oeuvre de P.P. Rubens: Histoire et description de ses tableaux et dessins, IV, Antwerp, 1890, p. 182, under no. 953, as a copy depicting Susanna Fourment.
L. Burchard, Nachtrage, in G. Glück, Rubens, van Dyck und ihr Kreis, Vienna, 1933, p. 389, as depicting Susanna Fourment.
H. Vlieghe, ‘Une grande collection anversoise du dix-septième siècle: le cabinet d'Arnold Lunden, beau-frère de Rubens’, Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, XIX, 1977, pp. 190-191, fig. 13, as depicting Susanna Fourment.
W. Sauerlander, ‘Review of the Antwerp exhibition of 1977’, Pantheon, XXXV, 1977, p. 340, as depicting Susanna Fourment(?) and possibly by Rubens.
M. Jaffé, ‘Exhibitions for the Rubens Year-I’, The Burlington Magazine, CXIX, 1977, p. 625, as depicting Susanna Fourment.
K. Renger, ‘Review of Rubens Drawings and Sketches (The British Museum, London) and Peter Paul Rubens (Kunsthalle, Cologne)', Kunstchronik, XXXI, 1978, p. 5, as depicting Susanna Fourment.
J. Foucart, ‘Rubens: l’année du quadricentenaire’, in Encyclopedia Universalis, 1978, p. 512, as possibly a copy.
H. Vlieghe, ‘Some Remarks on the Identification of the Sitters in Rubens Portraits’, The Ringling Museum of Art Journal, 1983, pp. 107-108, as depicting Susanna Fourment.
H. Vlieghe, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard: XIX(2): Portraits of Identified Sitters Painted in Antwerp, London, 1987, pp. 105-107, no. 101, as depicting Susanna Fourment.
K. Van der Stighelen and H. Vlieghe, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard: XIX(3): Portraits of Unidentified and Newly Identified Sitters Painted in Antwerp, Turnhout, 2021, pp. 54, 64-65, note 141, as Susanna Fourment.
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, PP. Rubens, Schilderijen, olieverfschetsen, tekeningen, 29 June-30 September 1977, no. 59, as depicting Susanna Fourment.
Mexico City, Museo Nacional de San Carlos and Ferrara, Palazzo dei Diamanti, Rubens e il Suo Secolo, 5 November 1998-27 June 1999, no. 14, as depicting Susanna Fourment.
Brussels, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rubens et l’atelier du Génie, 14 September 2007-27 January 2008, no. 30.
Antwerp, Rubenshuis, Rubens in Private: The Master Portrays his Family, 28 March-28 June 2015, no. 20, where dated 1615(?).
Georges Maile, 1817; see C.G. Voorhelm Schneevoogt, Catalogue des Estampes Gravées d'Après P.P. Rubens, Haarlem, 1873, p. 160, no. 39.
Sale room notice
This Lot is Withdrawn.

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Lot Essay

This portrait of a young woman dressed as a shepherdess is a striking and intimate example of an early portrait by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, the greatest Flemish painter of the seventeenth century. Identification of the sitter, and thus the date of the work, have long been the subject of debate amongst scholars. Following a recent detailed study of the work, including technical analysis, it is likely that the sitter is Isabella Brant, the artist’s first wife, and that the painting was executed by Rubens toward the end of the first decade of the seventeenth century or the first half of the second. It therefore dates to roughly the same period as the artist’s celebrated double marriage portrait, The Honeysuckle Bower (fig. 1; Alte Pinakothek, Munich).

The confusion surrounding the identification of the sitter and date of execution can be traced back to the earliest known provenance for the work, when, in 1785, it appears to have been purchased by the Antwerp picture dealers Pilaer and Beeckmans. In a letter dated 5 August of that year, written to the prospective buyer Thomas Harvey of Norwich, the dealers lauded the portrait’s beauty and appeal, but misidentified the sitter as Rubens’ second wife, Helena Fourment (1614-1673): ‘We have just made the most attractive possible acquisition of a beautiful Rubens, it is the portrait of Helena Froment (sic)... she is dressed as a shepherdess with a straw hat, we see the body in profile and her head is turned to the viewers… and seems to be painted at the age of 16 to 18 years old’ (‘Nous venons de faire la plus belle acquisition possible d’un beau Rubens, c’est le portrait de Helena Froment (sic),…elle est vêtue en bergère avec un chapeau de paille, on voit le corps en profil et elle a la tête tournée aux spectateurs…et paraît être peinte à l'âge de 16 à 18 ans’; quoted in Vlieghe, op.cit., 1987, p. 103)

This misidentification seems surprising for a number of reasons. Foremost of these is that the young woman depicted in the present work bears little resemblance to Helena Fourment, whose likeness is familiar from numerous portraits (both proper and disguised) painted by Rubens following their marriage in 1630 (see figs. 2 and 3). Indeed, the fair-haired, blue-eyed Helena bears hardly any resemblance to the woman in the guise of a shepherdess here. Similarly, by the time of Rubens’ marriage to Helena Fourment his style of painting, exemplified in the Munich portraits of his second wife, had developed and changed from that which had typified his earlier career. Rubens’ late style, which followed his diplomatic trips to the courts of Philip IV in Madrid and Charles I in London in 1628-30, is characterised by a much freer, more energetic handling of paint, in part influenced by the artist’s time studying the work of Italian masters, including important late works by Titian, in the Spanish and English Royal Collections.

In 1830, the dealer and writer John Smith saw the present painting in the collection of Jean Gilles Marie Joseph Schamp d’Aveschoot in Ghent. He accurately described the composition, noting how the woman’s ‘countenance, denoting her to have been about twenty-five years of age, is seen in a three-quarter view; her auburn hair is formed into two plaits, and falls on each side of the neck; a straw hat, lined with purple silk and turned up on the left side, is placed negligently on the head: the body, which is viewed in a side position, is clothed in white, with a broad crimson band round the shoulders, and a muslin kerchief partly covers the bosom; the right hand, only half of which is visible, holds a crook, the other is not seen’. He persisted, however, in identifying the portrait as one of ‘Helena Forman’ (see Smith, op.cit., II, p. 261).

Confusion over the identity of the sitter was compounded in 1933, when Ludwig Burchard, following an earlier suggestion by Max Rooses (loc. cit.) identified the young woman as Susanna Fourment (1599-1628), Helena’s sister. Burchard’s identification of the sitter as Susanna Fourment was followed by, among others, Hans Vlieghe (op. cit., 1977, 1983, 1987 and 2021), Michael Jaffé (op. cit., 1977), Konrad Renger (op. cit., 1978) and Katlijne Van der Stighelen (op. cit., 2021). The basis for Burchard’s identification was his mistaken association of the present work with a picture in the collection of Susanna Fourment’s husband, Arnold Lunden, shortly after 1640 and recorded in a 1692 inventory of objects belonging to their son-in-law, Willem Lunden, which described a portrait of Susanna as ‘en bergère’. It is now widely accepted that this painting from Lunden’s collection was not the present work, as Burchard believed, but instead Rubens’ famous portrait of Susanna Fourment, known as La Chapeau de Paille, in The National Gallery, London (fig. 4). That it was the National Gallery picture, and not the present work, that was recorded in the 1692 inventory can be confirmed by a description of the painting made in 1771 by Jean François Michel, which makes explicit reference to the feather in the sitter’s hat (rather than the sprig of flowers in the present picture). This, combined with the similarities with the woman in the double portrait in Munich, has more recently led both Nora de Poorter and Betsy Wiesemann to argue that the woman is, in fact, Rubens’ first wife, Isabella Brant, in their entries accompanying the 2007-08 and 2015 Antwerp and Brussels exhibitions (loc. cit.). The suggestion that the woman portrayed is Rubens’ first wife had first been made by Gustav Glück in a handwritten report dated 16 May 1938 preserved in the archives of the Rubenianum, Antwerp. Rubens and Isabella married on 13 October 1609, and it is believed the artist produced the double portrait at around this moment or a few years later. Comparison of the head in the Munich portrait with the one seen here reveals closely comparable features, including Isabella’s distinctive oval eyes; straight, pointed nose with a slightly protruding end; slightly dimpled chin and full lips (see figs. 5 and 6).

One notable difference, however, can be identified between the Munich portrait and the present painting. In the present work, the shepherdess is shown with brown eyes, whereas Rubens’ first wife clearly had grey eyes, as seen in both the Munich portrait and one depicting her slightly later in life in the Cleveland Museum of Art (fig. 7). This, however, might be explained by the nature of the present painting itself. Less a formal portrait than Rubens’ vision of a pastoral shepherdess, the artist may have felt greater freedom to operate beyond the formal strictures of portraiture. By their very nature, pastoral portraits had a tendency to obscure the identity of those depicted. But as images of love and implied fecundity, the pastoral portrait would have been an eminently suitable way for Rubens to depict his wife, with whom he would have three children beginning in 1611 with the birth of their daughter, Clara Serena (1611-1623).

Pastoral portraiture emerged in the Low Countries in the first half of the seventeenth century in response to an increased interest in Arcadian and bucolic subjects in the literary and visual arts. Popularized by painters like Gerrit van Honthorst and Paulus Moreelse, whose work Rubens would surely have known, these images became increasingly popular as people began to look beyond the city’s walls to the countryside, which was regarded as a source of innocent escape. It was there, in the words of the Dutch theorist and artist Karel van Mander, that people would be able to ‘while away the time together and enlighten our minds by going to see the beauty outside’ (Grondt der Edel Vry Schilder-Const, Haarlem, 1604, Chapter VIII, verse 3).

An identification of the sitter as Isabella Brant also has bearing on the dating of the portrait. The earlier suggestion that the painting depicted Susanna Fourment placed it around the time of her marriage to Arnold Lunden in 1622 at the age of twenty-three. This, however, raised the problem of the style of the portrait, which is at odds with the freer and more vigorous style Rubens employed during the 1620s. The close correlation between the shepherdess and the portrait of Isabella Brant in the Munich painting suggests that both works were painted around the same time, though Wiesemann (loc. cit.) has tentatively proposed a slightly later dating of circa 1615. This earlier dating also comports with Rubens’ style at the end of the first decade of the seventeenth century. The painting’s fluid brushwork, no doubt learned from the artist’s recent trip to Italy, is entirely consistent with his painterly approach in the years around and immediately following 1610.

Dendrochronological analysis of the panel undertaken by Dr. Ian Tyers in November 2015 provides further support for this earlier dating of the painting. The panel’s two oak boards derive from trees which were still growing in 1584. Given the absence of sapwood on either board, and allowing for the standard minimum of eight years of growth this would represent, a felling date of sometime after 1592 is most probable. Given the period oak panels were left to season before use, a date for the panel’s use toward the end of the first decade or early part of the second decade of the seventeenth century is entirely in keeping with standard artistic practices in the period.


The early history of the picture, unfortunately, remains elusive. In his will, written on 27 May 1640, Rubens stipulated that the portraits of his two wives which were in his possession should to go to his children. The document, however, does not specify the number or format of these pictures, making it impossible to say with certitude whether this painting was among those that passed into the possession of either Albert or Nicolaas Rubens.

The earliest known reference to this painting is probably the description of it while in the possession of the Antwerp dealers Pilaer and Beeckmans in 1785. According to the dealers, Sir Joshua Reynolds had apparently attempted to purchase the painting, but his offer of one hundred guineas was insufficient to secure it for his collection. The portrait was subsequently sold to one M. Dulac of Paris, probably the perfumer and art dealer Daignez-Dulac. It subsequently entered the collection of the Schamp d’Aveschoot family in Ghent, through which it descended until recently.

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