"Laurel Magnoilia" began as a response to the painting "Laura" also known as "Portrait of a Young Bride" by Giorgione. I found this portrait strange and captivating. The laurel branches seems to sprout out of her back. At one glance there is strength in her eyes and at another she looks entranced. Researching the painting a bit I learned that the laurel was a reference to Daphne and a symbol of chastity, the exposed breast a sign of her potential for motherhood. On trying to reinterpret the theme, however, the results felt stiff and weak. It just didn't work emotionally for me as a portrait of my own wife. As I reclined her in her feather coat and she struggled to clutch the lapels together she began to look more like Rubens than Giorgione.
"Laurel Magnolia", Oil on linen, 30"x24"
"Laura" by Giorgione, 1505
I have always been a huge fan of the portraits Rubens painted of his wives. He is clearly enraptured by his subject, and the emotion would be unbridled if not for the self-consciousness in the hands. In the Giorgione the gesture of the hand opening the coat is countered by the the disinterested stare away from the painter. Rubens' ladies gaze fully into the painter's eyes while the arms deny full access to the viewer. To me this was a more exciting solution.
"Isabella Brant" by Peter Paul Rubens. Isabella was Rubens' first wife
"Isabella Brant" by Peter Paul Rubens
While keeping the symbolism of the laurel branches, laurels are native to the mediterranean. It does happen, however, that a "laurel magnolia" tree grows in my front yard in Arkansas, named for its similarity in appearance to the laurel. The magnolia's tough, waxy leaves stay unchanged during the cold months, making it also a symbol of strength and endurance.
"Venus (Helene Fourment) in a Fur Coat" by Peter Paul Rubens. The second wife of Rubens.
"Portrait of Suzanne Forment" by Peter Paul Rubens. This is a portrait of Helene's sister, but bears many of the same qualities of his wives' portraits.