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A portrait of a female body: Rubens and Helena’s legs


For a long time the Western world was in a state of denial about the human body. There were conventions governing its representation and it could be regarded as an element of discourse. Between 1636 and 1638, Peter Paul Rubens painted a portrait of his second wife, Helena Fourment, entitled The little fur. This may be a turning-point in the perception of the body. We see in this work that the skin of this 22-year-old woman has lost its elasticity, her breasts are not symmetrical and her ankles are pink, contrasting with the pearly white of the rest of her body. The inside of her left thigh shows signs of a varicose saphenous vein. While today’s doctors can suggest the possibility of venous insufficiency and benign familial hyperelasticity, and talk of the consequences of breast-feeding, what this canvas is doing above all is showing the body of a real, named individual, “warts and all”. This may be one of the first portraits of a body in the history of European painting.

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