Theater & art

Frame by Frame

When a man loves a woman — and he doesn’t stand a chance

“Portrait of a Young Married Couple”
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
“Portrait of a Young Married Couple”

There is a photograph in my wedding album which reminds me that my wife does not belong to me. It’s staged, like all the others. But where the rest of the album advertises, adorably enough, conjugal happiness and mutual belonging, this one shows something quite different.

In the photograph, we are embracing, but that’s definitely not what you remember. I am facing away, but you don’t remember that either. What you remember is the look she is giving the camera over my shoulder.

I remember that look, and that photograph, when I see the unidentified woman in this marriage portrait at the Museum of Fine Arts. I am — how could you not be? — completely and forever in love with her.


The painter is Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), a fantastically capable artist from Antwerp. His pictures — especially from about 1620 — were lively, boisterous, full of wit and comedic mischief. After Rubens and Van Dyck, he was the greatest Flemish painter of the 17th century.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

He painted this in about 1621 or ’22, five years after his own marriage, to the daughter of Adam Van Noort, the only teacher he ever had. Van Noort was also the teacher of Rubens, and Rubens, of course, was a huge influence on Jordaens.

Jordaens was coarser (in a good way!) and more sly than Rubens. He excelled at portraying, with utmost realism, a side of humanity that was specific, turbulent, and just a little bit naughty.

He is better known for his crowded scenes based on the Bible or Greek mythology, but this double portrait is wonderfully done. The handling of the flamboyant, flying-saucer ruff around the woman’s neck is bravura, as are the rich, voluminous blacks of the couple’s garments and the gold embroidery on the front of her dress. Note, too, the ivy (symbolizing fidelity) and the broken column (fortitude in adversity); and delight in Jordaens’s rendering of her pink, slightly pudgy hands, and the brushy, romantic background.

But all that is secondary — and frankly forgettable — when set alongside the face of the wife.


That incredible look she is giving us. . . . Pity the husband with his slack jaw, meaty chin, and dopey eyes. For all I know, he may have been happy for the rest of his life, his marriage faithful and fruitful. He may have built up a great fortune, had a house in the country, beautiful horses and dogs.

But in other ways, let’s face it, he really didn’t stand a chance.


By Jacob Jordaens. At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., 617-267-9300,

Sebastian Smee can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee.