This is almost certainly a portrait of Susanna Lunden (1599–1643), daughter of the Antwerp merchant Daniel Fourment, an old friend and client of Rubens. The portrait was probably made soon after her marriage to Arnold Lunden.
It’s a highly distinctive painting – the sitter’s dark, oversized eyes and the exaggerated length of her neck, as well as the background of billowing cloud and the simple colour palette all contribute to its singular character. There is something too about how the sitter is presented to us – a sense of ambiguity, perhaps. Her eyes are emphasised by the blue of the sky and her dilated pupils by the black of her hat, but she doesn’t quite meet our gaze. She seems either to have just looked away, or to be plucking up courage to glance upwards. Rubens was clearly fascinated by Lunden and, just a few years later, he married her youngest sister Hélène, who was 16 at the time (he was 52).
Some portraits, perhaps like the people they represent, seem to have charisma: they catch the eye and stand out from the others on the gallery wall. For many people, this painting by Rubens is one such picture – it is certainly one of the most famous by him in the National Gallery’s collection.
It is hard to explain exactly why it is such a distinctive image. But the sitter’s dark, oversized eyes and the exaggerated length of her neck, as well as the background of billowing cloud and the simple colour palette of grey, red, black and blue all contribute to its singular character. There is something too about how the sitter is presented to us – a sense of ambiguity, perhaps. Her lips and the flush on her cheeks are emphasised by the deep-red sleeves, her eyes by the blue of the sky and her dilated pupils by the black of her hat, yet she doesn’t quite meet our gaze. She seems either to have just looked away, or to be plucking up courage to glance upwards. Her arms are crossed in a way that seems slightly defensive, but that also emphasises the narrowness of her waist and the shape of her bust. Rubens has centred her chest, her skin made luminous by the sunlight, while her face is cast in the shadow of her hat brim.
The hat led to the painting acquiring a nickname: ‘Le Chapeau de Paille’ (‘The Straw Hat’). It was a title first used in the eighteenth century, well before the painting was bought by the National Gallery, but how it came to be known by this name is a mystery. Clearly, the hat is a prominent and distinctive feature of the composition; equally obviously, it is not made of straw. The most likely explanation is that the word paille may be an error for poil (‘felt’ in French) – there may have been a transcribing error in an inventory or sale room catalogue that listed the painting. But the same sitter was actually depicted by Rubens on another occasion wearing a straw hat, in a painting that is now in a private collection.
In fact, this is a felt hat of a type known as a ‘beaver’, fashionable for both men and women in the Netherlands in the 1620s, when this painting was made. Like the large and expensive teardrop earrings, it was a status symbol. The felt which gives it strength and resilience and allows the creation of its long, sweeping brim was made from beaver fur from northern Europe and Russia. Before transatlantic trade with Canada developed and led to large-scale import of pelts, this was a rare commodity and generally worn only by the wealthy. The plume of ostrich feathers was a typical decorative flourish.
So, who is this expensively dressed young woman? Although there is nothing specific to identify the sitter, it is almost certainly a portrait of Susanna Lunden (1599–1643), daughter of Rubens’s friend and client Daniel Fourment, a silk and tapestry merchant in Antwerp. She was married twice: first in 1617 to Raymond del Monte, who died soon after, and then in 1622 to Arnold Lunden. The fact that she wears a ring and seems to be in her early to mid-twenties suggest that this portrait was probably made soon after her second marriage. Surviving records that suggest it was in the possession of the family of her second husband help corroborate this theory. In December 1630, Rubens married Susanna’s youngest sister Hélène, who was 16 at the time (Rubens was 52). They had five children together before his death in 1640.
A life drawing that is probably a preparatory study to this portrait is in the Albertina, Vienna but it shows only the sitter’s head and shoulders. As was often his practice, Rubens enlarged the painting as the work proceeded. The joints between the panels now show through the paint surface, so we can tell that he added a strip of wood on the right and then enlarged the picture at the base. These additions allowed him to complete the lower part of the sitter’s hands and arms, and also to create a bigger sky. He added the dark, looming clouds to the right to contrast with the clearer sky to the left, from which the light falls across the sitter’s body and hands. This greater expanse of feathery grey clouds seems almost to merge with the contours of the wrap covering her shoulders, and echoes the ostrich feathers in her hat and the wisps of blonde hair which have escaped from under it.
This portrait has influenced other artists – Thomas Lawrence’s Lady Peel, made in 1827 (Frick Collection, New York) and Self Portrait in a Straw Hat by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun were inspired by it. Le Brun, for example, has used a similar palette and light effects, and, wryly, depicts a hat made of straw, to match the ‘incorrect’ nickname by which Rubens’s painting was already known.
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