The Judgement of Paris


The Judgement of Paris, Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1635, oil on oak, 57” by 76”

Greek mythology inspired this Flemish Baroque painting. The story goes that there was an argument between the goddesses Juno, Venus, and Minerva over which one of them was the prettiest. Paris Alexander, a mortal, was to judge the beauty contest. Juno offered to make him ruler of all the lands if he chose her. Minerva offered to make him the strongest and most highly skilled man. Venus offered him the hand of Helene of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose love over power and strength, and proclaimed Venus the winner.

Rubens used his beloved second wife, Hélène Fourment, as the model for Venus. She also modeled for several of his other paintings. Like Paris, Rubens also chose love over social advantages. Besides being a renowned painter, he was a close confidant of Archduchess Isabella, and carried out many diplomatic missions on behalf of the Spanish Netherlands, negotiating with France and England. In reward for his service on behalf of Spain, Isabella’s nephew, King Philip IV, made him a nobleman in 1624. In 1627, Archduchess Isabella further increased his social status by making him a “gentleman of the household”. As a wealthy nobleman, it was expected that, should he remarry, he would marry into nobility, as befitted a man of his high social standing. Instead, at 53, he married Hélène Fourment, the 16-year-old daughter of a merchant. They had five children together, and were apparently quite happily in love until his death nine years later.

The Judgement of Paris highlights Rubens’ infatuation with Hélène. He chose his young wife to model Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, the winner of perhaps the world’s most famous beauty contest. (Venus is the goddess in the middle).

When I first saw this painting, my thoughts were: “Venus looks as though she’s recently had a baby.” The skin around her abdomen is loose and drooping. Her buttocks are sagging a bit, and appear to have cellulite. She has “love handles” at her hips. She has a slight double chin. If Rubens’ Venus was featured on the cover of Vogue Magazine today, the photo editors would have a field day photoshopping her into their much thinner, cellulite-free idea of beauty. In contrast, Rubens was satisfied with what he saw. My hunch was correct; upon researching Rubens, I discovered his wife gave birth to three out of their five children during the estimated time this painting was completed.

I like this painting for many reasons: Rubens’ use of rich colors that were typical of the Baroque period, the realistic flesh tones, the vanity of the goddesses as they take off their clothes and “strut their stuff”, and the humorous way the gods are peeping at them like gleeful schoolboys sneaking into a strip club. Most of all, I like this painting because it sends a message that resounds across four centuries: “I love my wife and find her perfectly beautiful”.

Rubens, Peter P. The Judgement of Paris. 1632-1635. Oil on wood. The National Gallery, London.

“JUDGEMENT OF PARIS : Greek Mythology.” JUDGEMENT OF PARIS : Greek Mythology. Ed. Aaron J. Atsma. Theoi Project, n.d. Web. 04 July 2014.

“Peter Paul Rubens.” The National Gallery, London. The National Gallery, n.d. Web. 03 July 2014.