by Roderick Conway Morris

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Van Dyck in Genoa

By Roderick Conway Morris
GENOA 31 May 1997
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo by Van Dyck, 1623



When the 22-year-old Anton Van Dyck arrived in the birthplace of Columbus late in 1621, he was. an aspiring court painter without a court to paint. When he left the Republic for the last time six years later, his mature style was formed, his reputation secure, and his career as a portraitist to the great, which was to earn him celebrity, wealth and a knighthood from Charles I in 1632, triumphantly launched.

This port city still has important examples of the dozens of canvases Van Dyck did during this decisive period, but many have since been widely dispersed throughout Europe and America. The purpose of 'Van Dyck in Genoa,' an intelligently focused and revealing show at the Palazzo Ducale until July 13, is not only to bring together as many as possible of the artist's Genoese productions, but to give an idea of what other works he encountered here and how they influenced his style.

In setting off for Italy, Van Dyck was following in the well-trodden footsteps of generations of earlier artists from the Low Countries, and more particularly Rubens, in whose Antwerp studio he had been the star pupil and most brilliant assistant. He traveled extensively, sketchbook in hand, visiting the peninsula's principal cities. But, in the end, he was to spend most time in Genoa, returning there over and again.

The ruling elite of the Genoese Republic represented the the greatest concentration of successful bankers on earth. These plutocrats built themselves huge urban palaces and lived the lives of princes. Some, like Giovanni Carlo Doria, amassed art collections that rivaled those of the most powerful crowned heads of Europe.

Doria's private collection of several hundred works - a single room of which has been impressively re-created at the opening of the exhibition, with loans from museums as far flung as Dallas and Dublin - contained works by Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Perugino, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, to name but a few. Doria's works by contemporary artists included a giant equestrian portrait of himself by Rubens (which Goering later carted off to Germanv. but which was returned to Italy after the last war). Van Dyck immersed himself in this and other local collections, as is evident from his 'Italian Sketchbook' (now in the British Museum), but inexplicably, given Doria's tireless pursuit of new talent, no evidence has come to light that he ever bought a picture by the Flemish artist.

Van Dyck's access to the homes and personal collections of Genoa's grandees was assisted by his close association with Rubens, but he could also count on his own family connections. Van Dyck's father, a prosperous merchant, had friends and acquaintances among his Genoese counterparts resident in Antwerp, notably members of the aristocratic Cattaneo and Balbi families, and the painter had already done a portrait of Giovanni Agostino Balbi before leaving for Italy.

Once there Van Dyck had only modest success in gaining large-scale ecclesiastical work of the kind that Rubens had won. An exception was a commission for a monumental altar piece in the Madonna del Rosario oratory in Palermo. Unfortunately, the framed Palermo canvas could not make it to the Genoa exhibition, since it proved too big to go through the oratory door.

The demand for Van Dyck portraits, however, proved as insatiable as the wealthy Genoese families' thirst for self-glorification. Male subjects sometimes required several portraits over a short space of time, often commemorating an official appointment, with them clothed in the robes of their new office.

By tradition women in Genoa were reputed to enjoy a level of freedom often disapproved of by other parts of Italy and absolutely inconceivable in Spain. The preferences of women, some of whose likenesses strongly suggest personalities accustomed to having their way, may well have won Van Dyck additional commissions, and explain perhaps the number of wonderful portraits of children, both with their mothers and alone. Nonetheless, one of the most touching of all, 'A Genoese Nobleman With Two Little Girls,' from a private collection and on public display here for only the second time this century, is almost certainly of a widower and his daughters.

Genoese noblewomen may have escaped the extreme social restrictions suffered by their Spanish sisters, but they adhered to Spanish fashions with a vengeance. The opulence and subtlety of texture of their dress presented a major challenge to any artist, but Van Dyck surmounted it with panache. The even greater obstacle of conveying a sense of flesh, vitality and character of a person enveloped in a stiff, voluminous mass of fabric that left only the face and hands visible, was a task he also proved more than equal to.

He did, however, have the chance to do one outstanding informal portraitof Lucas and Cornelis de Wael, his fellow-Flemish artists, with whom Van Dyck lodged in Genoa. Painted as a departure gift to the brothers, it is an animated, affectionate snapshot, catching each in an unself-conscious pose, by the hand of a by now, fully fledged master, in his most engagingly relaxed mood.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023