_Here he had numerous opportunities to paint portraits in which he was marvelously successful and had few equals.  He painted Cavaliers and Ladies of our city and all of them so lifelike and invested with a certain air, that . . . . one could sense the spirit of their nobility._

- Raffaele Soprani, _Le vite de pittori, scoltori, et architetti genovesi_, 1674, on Anthony van Dyck's stay in Genoa

The resplendent Marchesa Cattaneo strides onto the terrace of her Genoese palazzo while her African servant shields her with a bright red parasol. Her steady gaze and proud bearing tell us that she is a confident woman. Anthony van Dyck had a remarkable ability to understand his patrons' aspirations and to express them in his portraits, whether it be the inner strength of a Flemish burgher, the dashing bravura of a military hero, the innocence of a young girl, or the grace of an aristocrat such as Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo.  Partly because of the extraordinary surety of his brushwork and the fluidity of his forms, Van Dyck convinces the viewer that his characterizations are just.  In truth, however, one knows little or nothing about the personalities or ambitions of most of his sitters, particularly those he portrayed in Genoa.  Nevertheless, this portrait's details and composition assure us of the sophistication of this _altera donna_, or grand lady. The Marchesa's exceptional and disproportionate height emphasizes her stature, literally and figuratively. The red sunshade emphasizes the viewer's position beneath hers and extends her presence, forming a halo around her head against a dramatic sky. The red cuffs break up the severity of the Marchesa's lavish, black costume and draw attention to her hands—especially to the sprig of orange blossoms in her right hand, a traditional symbol of chastity.

Without knowing his actual state of servitude, the black attendant holding the marchesa's parasol is a reminder of the active slave trade from Africa to Genoa. His inclusion in the portrait may derive artistically from Titian, the Italian Renaissance artist Van Dyck admired and who portrayed black servants in several of his canvases.

In the same year he created this portrait, Van Dyck also painted the marchesa's two eldest children, Filippo (1619–1684) and Maddalena Cattaneo (born in 1621), both the National Gallery of Art collection (1942.9.93, 1942.9.94). An Englishman visiting the Palazzo Cattaneo in December 1827 saw the three portraits hung as a group, with the children flanking their mother. P. A. B. Widener's purchase of all three portraits in 1908 allows the museum to replicate that arrangement today.

Van Dyck studied and worked in Italy from late 1621 until 1627. While the port of Genoa was his base, he also made numerous trips of varying duration to other Italian cities, including an eight-month stay in Rome in 1622.  In Genoa, he encountered the majestic portraits Peter Paul Rubens had painted there in 1606, including _Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria_ (NGA 1961.9.60), a grand work that inspired this portrayal of Marchesa Cattaneo. The marchesa's parasol and the architectural setting, with its delicately carved Corinthian columns, are directly related to Rubens's use of imposing architecture, terrace setting, red drapery, and overall sense of grandeur in the _Spinola Doria_ portrait.

Throughout his career Van Dyck competed with his immensely famous peer (and teacher) Rubens, whom he outlived by only a year. Van Dyck's style and approach were, nevertheless, distinctive.  Note, for example, how Marchesa Cattaneo appears to be in motion, her dress swaying as if she was captured in mid-stride, in contrast to the stilled formality of Rubens's portrait.  Van Dyck aspired to an airy style, exhibiting the qualities of grace, ease, nonchalance, and effortlessness that embody the quintessential notion of _sprezzatura_ of Italian courtiers that Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) codified in his influential _Book of the Courtier_ (1528) while describing the ideal Renaissance man.


  • Title: Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo
  • Creator: Sir Anthony van Dyck
  • Date Created: 1623
  • Physical Dimensions: overall: 242.9 × 138.5 cm (95 5/8 × 54 1/2 in.) framed: 271.46 × 166.37 × 12.7 cm (106 7/8 × 65 1/2 × 5 in.)
  • Provenance: Giacomo Cattaneo [born 1593], Genoa, husband of the sitter; by inheritance to his sons, Filippo Cattaneo [1619-1684] and Gio. Giacomo Cattaneo [1628-1712], Genoa; by inheritance 1712 to their great-nephew, Nicolò Cattaneo [1676-1746], Genoa;[1] by inheritance to Giambatista Cattaneo, Genoa, by 1780; Nicola Cattaneo, Genoa, by 1827; Cattaneo della Volta Collection, until 1906;[2] sold to Antonio Monti, Ferrara, buying with or more likely for (Trotti et Cie., Paris); on joint account December 1906 with (P. & D. Colnaghi, London); on three-way joint account February 1907 with (M. Knoedler and Co., New York);[3] sold 1908 to Peter A.B. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; inheritance from Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park; gift 1942 to NGA. [1] Information about the early provenance of the painting is contained in a document from the Cattaneo family archives published by Piero Boccardo, "Ritratti di collezionisti e committenti," in Susan Barnes, Piero Boccardo, et al., _Van Dyck a Genova. Grande pittura e collezionismo_, exh. cat., Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, 1997: 53-56. The portraits of Elena Cattaneo Grimaldi and her children (NGA 1942.9.92-94) have stayed together as a group through the centuries, except for a brief period between 1708 and 1712. During those years the portrait of the mother (NGA 1942.9.92) stayed with Gio. Giacomo Cattaneo, while the paintings of Filippo and Maddalena (NGA 1942.9.93-94) had already come to the residence of Niccolò Cattaneo near Portovenere. [2] See also _The Frick Collection: An Illustrated Catalogue. Volume I: Paintings, American, British, Dutch, Flemish and German_, New York, 1968, 179-180: "Ratti, in 1780 [Carlo Giuseppe Ratti, _Instruzione di quanto può vedersi di più bello in Genova in pittura, scultura, ed architettura ecc... nuovamente ampliata e accresciuta_, Genoa, 1780], recorded several [Cattaneo portraits] in the palace of Giambattista Cattaneo, near the Church of San Torpete, and in 1846 Alizeri also referred to them [Federigo Alizeri, _Guida Artistica per la Città di Genova_, 2 vols., Genoa, 1846-1847]. In May 1857, Otto Mündler wrote in his diary [manuscript now in the National Gallery, London; see Otto Mündler, "The Travel Diaries of Otto Mündler 1855-1858," ed. Carol Togneri Dowd, _Walpole Society_ 31 (1985): 152 (book 1, f. 85), 276] that there were in the Casa Casaretto eight Van Dycks ('unquestionably original, but all of them formerly enlarged'). Among these he cited (no. 6): 'A young Lady, standing, l. side outwards. A negro holds a red umbrella over her head. Her r. hand holds an orange-flower. White ruff and red cuffs, on a black dress. The negro dressed in yellow. Background a terrasse, a landscape; fine sky. Size of life. Splendid.' Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, director of the National Gallery of London, also visited Genoa in 1857. In his notes (preserved in the library of the National Gallery, London) he writes: '30 Aug. 1857. Genoa. The Cattaneo "Vandyck" most of them (there are eight in number) are very sketchy & being on a dark ground have suffered ... The whole length lady with a black servant holding a red umbrella over her is ... [ruined?].'" [3] Information on Monti and the relationship between Trotti, Colnaghi, and Knoedler is from records available in the Getty Provenance Index.
  • Medium: oil on canvas

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