AT the age of fifty-three, Rubens, diplomatist, scholar, most celebrated of
painters, and four years a lonely widower, married Helena Fourment, the
daughter of a silk merchant of Antwerp.
“I chose a young, middle-class
woman,” he wrote, “who would not blush to see me take up my brush; and to
tell the truth, I loved my liberty too much to exchange it for the embraces of
an old woman.” The young wife was barely sixteen, and known by her beauty
as Helen of Flanders.
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She incarnated that splendid type of Nordic goddess
whom he loved to paint; and certainly she did not blush to see him take up
his brush, for he painted her again and again-as
Mary Magdalene and the
VIrgin; gorgeously dressed and bejeweled, with her lovely ohildren-e-she had
six; and in the nude as Susanna, a nymph,
and the central figure of The Judgment of Paris.
In this strong, blond woman, Rubens found a wrfe after his heart’s desire,
but he did not squander his strength in her huge embraces: he seemed indeed,
after his second marriage, to paint with the ardency and dazzling power of
one suddenly come into eternal youth.
The Judgment of Paris, a presentation
of the female nude-assertively Flemish in its billowy opulence-as viewed
from the back, front, and side, is one of the greatest of his numerous master
pieces, the most honest and uncompromising, the most glowing and substantial
expression of the sensuous world that has ever been conceived. No other painter
suggests so little and expresses so
much-tells everything with such lucidityand resplendent candor.
Rubens loved the nude but he was not obsessed by its sexual enticements;
nor did he create seductive animals to burn the desire of those who would find
in art an erotic stimulus. The nude is a part of his philosophical scheme, a
system including the health, the movement and the generatIve forces of the
organic world. His passion for life and his love for strapping, sun-warmed
nakedness were submitted to the sternest intellectual discipline and reduced
to a synthesis of law and order in
which no form protrudes suspiciously. There
is no heated concentration on faces, breasts, or thighs; no sly beckonings to
come and behold salacious poses;
no artful evasions-the organized sensuality
is clean and pure. His conception of the fullness and richness of life could
never have been expressed in the forms of thin women; he needed size, health,
and luxuriantly developed, wide-girthed bodies in a world of three dimen
sions-everything that was the opposite of the mean, the stunted, and the dieted.