The Lady Who Taught Van Dyck To Paint

We often think of the Old Master Painters during the Renaissance and Baroque eras as being just that: masters, rather than mistresses. Yet there are exceptions to this, as you learn when you begin to delve more deeply into art history. While most of these ladies are not household names today, during their lifetimes some of them were very popular and well thought of, indeed. So today I wanted to draw your attention to one in particular, whom I was reminded of yesterday, in the context of news about a pretty amazing art discovery.

One of the most remarkable finds in the art market in recent years occurred on the British Antiques Roadshow, when an Anglican minister from Derbyshire learned that the painting he had purchased for 400 pounds in an antique shop a decade earlier was by the great Flemish Baroque painter, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). The work turned out to be a study by Van Dyck for a larger work, “The Magistrates of Brussels”, which was destroyed in 1695 during a bombing of the town hall of that city. Several other preparatory paintings survive, including one in the British Royal Collection. The rediscovered painting has just gone on view at the Rubens House in Antwerp, where it is on permanent loan from the collector who purchased it.  

Between 1621-1627 the young Van Dyck was living and working in Italy, earning his keep by painting the nobility in places like Genoa, such as the enormous portrait of the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo now in the National Gallery here in DC. He was also taking time to study and travel throughout Italy, sketching and talking to other artists as he went. One of those whom he met, and whose ideas were to have a significant influence on his own development as an artist, was a lady then her 90’s and suffering from an eye ailment which prevented her from painting the portraits that had made her famous.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was the eldest of seven children born to members of the minor nobility in Cremona, Italy. Unusually for her sex and class at the time, she became a highly accomplished artist, to the point that she engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Michelangelo on art and technique, after he praised a drawing she sent him. Her early paintings of herself, her brother, and her five sisters showed a remarkable directness and lack of sentimentality.

Eventually Anguissola was called to Spain to be a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabel de Valois, the third wife of King Felipe II, who was a decade younger than the Italian painter, but also a painter herself. The two became close friends, and no doubt for Anguissola it was in some respects like being the big sister again. During her time in Madrid she painted the Royal Family and their courtiers many times. While in Spain her style changed as she matured, in part to adopt to the formalities required of court life and her own place within it, and her figures similarly adopted a certain hauteur.

A very famous painting in The Prado of Felipe II in middle age for example, once attributed to other artists working in Madrid at the time, has now been credited to Anguissola. Dressed completely in black, the most powerful man in the world is portrayed gently holding a rosary in his left hand, with his right hand resting in the carved grooves of his armchair. His expression is one of quiet, complete self-confidence: here is a man who knows exactly who he is, and feels absolutely no need to apologize to anyone for it. This is a remarkable psychological study of a figure who changed the course of world history.

It is some indication of the esteem in which Felipe II held Anguissola that following the untimely death of Queen Isabel in childbirth, he provided for his wife’s dear friend and companion by not only giving her an annual pension, but also a substantial dowry so that she could marry into the nobility. Anguissola married the son of the Spanish Viceroy to Sicily, and with her husband’s encouragement continued to paint. After his death in 1579, with the King’s permission she sailed back home to Italy; on the journey, she and the ship’s captain fell deeply in love with one another, and the two eventually married. Like his predecessor, Anguissola’s new husband encouraged her to continue painting. When it became impossible for her to paint due to her deteriorating vision, she supported the arts through philanthropy, collecting, and by meeting with younger artists who wanted to learn from her experiences.

In July 1624, a young Van Dyck showed up to visit the now very elderly Anguissola, to look at her paintings, hear her stories about some of the great artists she had met and corresponded with, and to come to understand some of her ideas about how to engage in the art of painting. He wrote of their conversations in his notebooks, now preserved in the British Museum, and drew a sketch of her which he later turned into an oil painting, now in the collection at Knole House. In it, we see a very old woman, bowed by age, but still as sharp as ever – as Van Dyck himself described her – her large, searching eyes no longer seeing clearly, but still peering into the person sitting before her.

Who knows – but for that deeply perceptive understanding of how to convey, in portraiture, the dignity of the sitter, Van Dyck might never have emerged from Rubens’ shadow. Whatever the case, Van Dyck acknowledged that he learned an enormous amount about the art of painting from Anguissola, particularly with regard to how to treat his sitters. Had this tiny Italian lady not made such an impact on the man who became the most popular and influential painter in England for well over two centuries, British and indeed American art would have been something else entirely.

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Self-portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola (1558)

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