Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting

  Margaret Lemon

  c.1638

  Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

  Acquired by Charles I

 

Margaret Lemon was Van Dyck’s mistress and is unfortunately known to us today only through contemporary tittle-tattle. A fellow artist of Van Dyck, Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77), described her as violently jealous, even on one occasion attempting to bite Van Dyck’s thumb off. It is believed that this portrait was left unfinished because of the artist’s marriage in February 1640 to the more respectable court beauty Mary Ruthven (c.1622-44).

This portrait appears to be Van Dyck’s response to Rubens’s c.1635-40 portrait of Helena Fourment as Venus, the so-called Little Fur or Het Pelsken (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), though there is no record of Van Dyck’s returning to Antwerp to be able to see the painting between March 1635 and 1640. If the similarities are coincidental it is because both paintings depend upon the same Titian model, his Woman in a Fur Wrap (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), then in the collection of Charles I, which had been copied by Rubens during his 1629-30 stay in England and which Van Dyck could study daily.

Van Dyck follows Titian more closely than Rubens does, except in rejecting fur in favour of the equally sensuous and suggestive textures of silk. The poses of all three paintings (by Rubens, Titian and Van Dyck) derive from the antique statue called the Venus Pudica or Modest Venus, because she seeks to conceal her breasts with her arm. Margaret Lemon similarly presses a silk wrap against her body, while Titian’s figure appears to be donning or doffing a fur garment. From other Titian paintings Van Dyck takes the idea of a uniformly hot colour scheme, clearly symbolic of the ‘flames of love’ or some such familiar metaphor of burning desire. This effect can be especially appreciated in contrast to the sober grey ‘colour-coding’ of Portrait of Zeger van Hontsum (Royal Collection).

This portrait was sold at the Commonwealth Sale to the artist Jan Baptist Gaspars (c.1645-92), who may have smartened up a then more obviously unfinished picture, though recent cleaning has revealed no evidence of the work of separate hands.


Oil on canvas

93.3 x 77.8 cm

RCIN 402531