Het Pelsken

The two paintings both bore on the viewer’s senses, but in different ways. The sensual demands are similar up to a point, meaning that they both challenge sight and touch in the viewer, but for different reasons and with different means. In “Het Pelsken” touch is merely suggested and invited, while in “The Procuress” it isn’t just suggested but also inacted. The subject of the “Het Pelsken“ painting is a woman standing, dressed in a fur coat. She is Helene Fourment, the wife of the painter, and she was almost 40 years younger than he was.

The painting portrays her wearing nothing but a fur coat wrapt around her body in a fashion suggesting it is about to fall over revealing everything. The movement that is suggested is that of covering herself because of the cold. She is looking straight ahead, directly at the “audience”, almost daringly, thus the person looking cannot but notice her beauty. It is almost like she is surprised in motion, trying to cover herself because of the cold but for no other reason. Her face doesn’t betray surprise or aggravation at the onlookers, nor any other emotion for that matter.

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There are no other objects in the picture apart for the woman and the dressing garments. There is half of a pillow barely visible in the lower corner of the painting, but that doesn’t conflict with the subject of the work, it is only something that confers balance to the composition. In “The Procuress”, the subject of the painting is obviously the woman identified in the title, but unlike in the other painting discussed, there are other figures in it: a young woman of “questionable” affections receiving a coin from a man standing behind her.

The man’s arm is resting on her breast while the woman in black, the “procuress”, looks on the scene approvingly. There is another character in this scene, a young man holding a glass and turned towards the audience. The other three characters are absorbed in their transaction and look to one another: the procuress towards the face of the man in her left and the man and the girl in yellow are looking at the coin placed in the young woman’s hand.

Because of this and also because of the position of their hands, towards the centre of the painting, the viewer’s attention is drawn toward the coin also, and thus to the trade and the meaning of the painting. In this painting, unlike the one by Ruberns, the characters are not alone , their presence is supported by other objects: the girl and the man in the left both hold glasses in their hands, and there is a jug on the table. This man also appears to hold the end of a strings instrument, possibly a lute.

In front of the characters, obscuring their lower body, there is a large fur coat and a cloth in bright colours. So, in terms of composition and basic elements, the two painting are quite different one from the other. In the “Het Pelsken [Portrait of Helene Fourment in a Fur Coat]”, Rubens has structured the painting around the central figure of the standing woman. She is the only character of the picture, so everything around is meant to support her figure: the dark background enhances the shadows and brings forward the whiteness of her complexion.

The suggested space is that of an interior, possibly she is standing in front of some dark curtains on a reddish carpet. There is also a pillow on the floor, another suggestion of an interior scene. Because of the darkness of the background this appears to be very deep, but the space is delineated by the finished red floor. The figure of the woman is place in the first plane and she is showed full figure, without anything in front of her blocking our perfect view. Light is coming from the left apparently, and it surrounds the woman in a kind of glow.

The flesh tones contrast with the darkness that surrounds her, both in the shades of the fur that she covers herself in and in the background of the picture, making the lit parts of her body appear even more obvious. Thus the eye of the viewer is directed towards the upper body of the woman, a large area of revealed skin. In “The Procuress”, Vermeer chooses to structure the picture around a central punctual element, the coin dropped in the girl’s hand. Because of the way the hands of the characters converge towards the same point there is a sense of dept created in the picture.

The scene appears to take place inside, but the surroundings are vague and the darkness of the background can let us only guess to the location: a pub somewhere. The figures’ upper body is the only visible part, the lower one being obscured by the large cloth that is placed on the table and the fur coat. The lighting is diffuse, coming from the left, shining on the glasses and in the freshness of the girl’s complexion. The brightly lit colours of the girl’s garments, the white and yellow, makes the attention shift to her, even though the name of the painting suggests the main character is another figure.

The image in Rubens’ painting engages the senses of the viewer in terms of sight primarily, but also touch. The nakedness of the woman invites the eyes to feast on her flesh and to try to see as much as possible, every detail to come into focus. The realism of the texture makes her almost touchable, and the watcher desiring to touch her. In Vermeer’s painting the senses engaged are, besides sight and touch, smell and taste, because of the presence of the wine in their glasses. Besides that, there isn’t much difference to the “Het Pelsken”.

Sight is drawn because of the colours used to depict the clothes of the characters and because light enhances them and also because the freshness of the young girl’s skin contrasts with the shadow put upon the other faces. Moreover, sight is drawn to the exchange of the coin from one hand to the other. Touch is suggested mainly because of the gesture of the man fondling the girl’s breast, but also because of the placing of coin in the girl’s hand. The paintings differ because in one touch is suggested, and in the other it is an action, but otherwise there are the same senses envisaged.

The woman in the “Het Pelsken” painting is sensing coldness, a fact suggested by her covering herself. Her sensual experience is that of touch. She senses the temperature around herself and also the texture of the fur coat that she uses to wrap around her body. She also experiences sight, as she is watching but also watched. She might also sense the specific smell of the fur coat. Her experience is both pleasant – the touch of the coat and its warmth, and unpleasant- the chillness in the room.

What she feels and what the watcher senses is similar up to a point. The sight experience is similar, but the touch one is not: she feels the fur, but the viewer senses not just that, but also her skin in the colours and textures used. In “The Procuress” the girls feels the touch of the man and all of them feel the taste of the wine. I couldn’t say if the figures are experiencing pleasure or not, because the pleasure shown on some of the faces could be false, as is the case in this kind of exchange or business.

Some of the senses are expressed directly upon them, but there are others expressed in their surrounding, like taste expressed by the presence of wine. In both paintings the senses suggested to the viewer are the ones experienced also by the characters in the paintings. The reaction of the viewer regarding Rubens’ painting may differ from one person to the other, but there is something that everyone will think about: what if the coat fell. Since the author and his wife kept the painting in their bedroom, it must have been something very important for them.

Though I don’t think that the experience is meant to be erotic, I cannot rule out the fact that the woman is naked but for a fur and that the way she arranges the coat to cover herself appears to make her even more attractive and the position is quite revealing. The mood of the painting is one of quietness, even of expectancy, and we are meant to consider both what the young woman is thinking at and what she is sensing. Since she is the only character in this “story” there aren’t any other characters to steal the scene from her, as she is watching out towards the “audience”.

The viewer is captured by her look and her posture. In what Vermeer’s work is concerned, the viewer’s reaction towards the painting is one of wonder to the explicitness of the scene presented. The experience isn’t meant as erotic, it isn’t even amusing, but is more wondering about what each figure is “thinking” about: why is the second man looking away from the scene and towards us, why the girl is smiling like that. The only obvious answer is that about the procuress, whose approving smile isn’t hard to decipher.

The two paintings couldn’t be more different in terms of composition and what they portray. Both paintings make suggestions to our senses, and even to the same senses, touch and sight, but this happens with different methods. In Rubens’ painting it is more a suggestion of what one should feel and sense, and an invitation towards it, while in Vermeer’s the suggestion is also enacted and the invitation is more obvious. Thus the paintings aren’t just different, they also make you feel different when watching them.