This painting is one of the most famous by Rubens in the Collection. The title 'Le Chapeau de Paille' (meaning The Straw Hat) was first used in the 18th century. In fact the hat is not straw; 'paille' may be an error for 'poil', which is the French word for felt. The hat, which shades the face of the sitter, is the most prominent feature of the painting.
The portrait is probably of Susanna Lunden, born Susanna Fourment, third daughter of Daniel Fourment, an Antwerp tapestry and silk merchant. Her younger sister Helena became Rubens's second wife in 1630.
Susanna Fourment married her second husband Arnold Lunden in 1622. The portrait probably dates from about that time. The direct glance of the sitter from under the shadow of the hat, together with the ring on her finger, suggests that the painting is a marriage portrait.
Rubens enlarged the painting as the work proceeded, adding a third strip of wood on the right and then enlarging the picture at the base. The additions created a greater expanse of sky, and Rubens added clouds to the right that contrast with the clearer sky to the left, from which the light falls across the body and hands.
Jennifer Till: This is a portrait by Peter Paul Rubens of a lady called Susanna Lunden. And it’s called the ‘Chapeau de Paille’, which is her really beautiful straw hat. And the reason I was particularly kind of captivated by this is that very often a dancer, because of the distance from the viewer, covers characterisation in a very broad sweep, whereas there are roles which need more subtlety, and this painting is such a subtle representation of a girl, a very pretty girl, who’s not really comfortable with where she is. She’s wearing a beautiful hat, that’s lovely, but her eyes, rather than looking directly, she’s looking and her eyes are sliding to one side, almost as though there’s somebody looking at her, maybe encouraging her or she’s just shy of this situation. Her hands are crossed – it’s a closed gesture, and the one thing that she’s sort of showing is her betrothal ring, and in that she has a little confidence.
Now that sort of movement, that sort of style, that sort of slight tilt of the head, is the sort of thing that in dance you would use for somebody like the betrayed girl in ‘The Rake’s Progress’, somebody who is suddenly elevated with the rake to a stratum of society that she doesn’t understand and isn’t comfortable with. Those sort of elements – they were expected to just be absorbed into you, so that when that was your role, that was what you did, nobody needed to say, ‘excuse me dear, could you think about…’, – there just wasn’t time. You were expected to arrive with that knowledge inbred, and the way we did it was by coming in and trailing round in our school uniform and looking at paintings. It’s a wonderful idea.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty One, July 2008