Helena Fourment

Portrait of Rubens's second wife, summer of 1637

I refresh myself and choose my newest pearl earrings. I received them from Peter Paul for my saint's day. It’s in August but he couldn't wait to give them to me. Anneke ties the silk ribbons on my sleeves into bows and gets my summer cloak. As soon as the carriage arrives, we can leave. I look into the mirror. My hair is artfully pinned up, my cheeks blush.

Don't move Clara, yes, like that - with the mask next to your face. Sit still a while longer, Frans, it won't take too long. Careful Anneke, make sure Isabella doesn't fall, hold on to her, what were you thinking, she can't walk that far yet. I should mention to Peter Paul that Anneke is not the most orderly of nannies. It's summer, I am wearing my white dress and light hat. Frans looks so pretty with his velvet beret. He must be the prettiest boy in Antwerp, with his large, dreamy eyes.

 

My husband quickly sketches

 “Perfect”, says Peter Paul, “just continue to look at him while he looks at me. It makes the portrait livelier.” My husband quickly sketches them, adding a hint of colour here and there. When he will paint the actual large-format portrait, the atmosphere of this July day will be visible, palpable forever. Look: he's already finished the sketch. Good. I put down Frans, and wipe something off his beret. Clara runs into the garden. She's very good at it, she's already five years old. Anneke picks up Isabella and takes her for a nap, in the room with our new-born, whom we named Peter Paul. "What a luxury", my husband said at the time, "to have so many sons that I can even give one my own first name. Who knows, one day, he may become a painter." We are truly blessed.

 

The last weeks of summer

Soon we will leave to our Steen again, for the last lovely weeks of summer. I really look forward to it. Life there is so peaceful. Peter Paul doesn't have to work so hard and I can play with the children as long as I want to. We ride the horses, and in the meantime Peter Paul sketches the landscape. He uses the sketches to produce tiny paintings for his own pleasure, with our farmland and a rainbow, our farmland in the first sun after a shower, so fresh-looking and so expansive. In his studio in the tower, with the amazing views. We're in Antwerp for the week. I'll be visiting my sister later and Peter Paul wants to answer some letters that arrived for him. 

 

Helena after Rubens's death

Peter Paul Rubens died on 30 May 1640. He was 62 years old. Helena became a young widow, at the age of 26, after just ten years of marriage. Nine months after Rubens died, she gave birth to a daughter, Constantia Rubens. A few years later, Helena married Master Jan Baptist van Broechoven van Bergeyck, with whom she had six children. The eldest child was probably born out of wedlock.

Helena died on 15 July 1673 in Brussels. Her remains were buried on 4 August 1673 in the Rubens Chapel in St. James' Church in Antwerp.

On the day she died her husband wrote the following to a family member: “… I just tragically lost my wife, Mrs de Bergeyck, my dear companion. It pleased God to call her to him on 15 July. She received the holy sacraments of the Church with exemplary piety. She endured a long and painful illness without complaining displaying proper Christian patience. She resigned herself fully to God's will and until her last breath she was granted the grace of her faculties by the divine will."