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.


Self-portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola (1558)

Remember Your Barber, Gentlemen

Today I was saddened to learn of the passing of Ed Lara, proprietor of Georgetown Hairstyling, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.  Ed was a terrific guy who was great at cutting hair, but he was also part of a world that continues to vanish, i.e. the virtually all-male domain known as the barbershop.  His passing gives me an opportunity to remind my male readers of the virtues of patronizing these places, before they all disappear.

After I moved back to Georgetown more than a decade ago, Ed cut my hair for many years, as had his stepfather Rigo before him, when I was an undergraduate.  Ed was always hugely professional and accommodating, happy to talk about anything from travel and customs in Spain, to different kinds of music (he played in a rock band on the side), to rumors about development plans in the neighborhood…or to just let you doze off in the chair.  Back when my online Superman persona asserted itself, Ed was responsible for helping me grow out my hair in such a way that I could have a neat side part but still manage a dangling curl in front when required.  Subsequently, whenever I called to make an appointment and gave my name, he’d always greet me by saying, “Hey there, Superman!”

About a year ago when my work changed, I stopped going to Ed – much to my guilt whenever I’d pass by his shop – and started getting my hair cut at another barbershop, closer to the office.  Not unlike Ed’s shop, sometimes it’s so quiet that the only thing one can hear is the television news playing in the background, even while all of the elderly male barbers are hard at work giving a customer a trim.  There are no close friendships one can perceive, and yet like in all barbershops there is a welcoming clubbiness to the place.

It’s often been observed that women can develop deep, personal relationships with their hairdressers.  Because a lady’s hair can often take far longer to get ready than a gentleman’s, it’s only natural that while sitting in a chair for a great length of time while waiting for things like chemicals or curlers to work their magic, lengthy conversations will often result.  Moreover a woman will often follow her particular hairdresser around, as they move from salon to salon, in part because of the relationship of trust that develops over time.

Typically, less is said about the relationship between a man and his barber, and there are likely several reasons for this.  For one thing, in some circles it is still considered rather unseemly for a man to be fussing too much about his appearance.  This has not always been the case however: one need only look to the figures of the Italian Renaissance or the Regency period in England to realize that, like their avian counterpart, the male peacock, men have been strutting around showing off their mops for quite awhile.

Another reason why there is often less of an obvious bond between male customer and male barber is the fact that barbershops these days are rarer animals than they used to be.  With more and more unisex salons, and increasing numbers of men going to hairdressers rather than barbershops to get their hair cut, the old-fashioned, stripey-pole barbershop, with its nondescript decor and straight razors, seems to be little more than a relic of the past.  From my point of view that is to their credit, rather than otherwise, but it’s certainly true that barbershops have been on the wane for some time now.

Although I’m sad to know that Ed will never cut my hair again, I’m grateful to have had such a good barber for so many years, and am equally glad that he was able to take over at one of the oldest continually operating businesses in town, and keep it going well into the 21st century.  His passing is a reminder to those of us who appreciate small, local businesses, as well as things which may seem old-fashioned, that in order for such establishments to survive, it’s not enough to simply have nice feelings about them.  They need our business, our patronage, and our recommendations to friends, in order to thrive in these increasingly homogenized times.

The late Ed Lara (center) at work at Georgetown Hairstyling

The late Ed Lara (center) at work at Georgetown Hairstyling

Tonight in Old Town: Colleen Carroll Campbell, “My Sisters the Saints”

When the first chapter of a memoir contains a passage such as the following, the reader is put on immediate notice that they are in for something rather different from the usual self-promotional autobiography:

I lingered there for fifteen minutes, allowing myself to feel the full force of that hollowness I had been trying to paper over and outrun for more than a year.  So this is it, I thought, as the tears ran down my cheeks.  This is a life without God.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is someone whose name and face are probably familiar to you.  A journalist, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, news commentator, talk show host, public speaker, and author, her latest book “My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir” features endorsements from people like New York’s Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan, best-selling novelist Mary Higgins Clark, and Harvard Law professor Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon.  With passages such as the above giving a hint of what this book contains, it’s not hard to understand why.

Tonight Colleen will be presenting a talk on her book at the Pauline Sisters’ bookstore on King Street in historic Old Town Alexandria, just outside of Washington DC.  If you happen to be in the area I urge you to attend, even if you’re not Catholic.  Not only is Colleen’s life story something which many of us will be able to relate to, particularly here in career-centered Washington, where so few of us end up having meaningful personal lives outside of work, but also because this is a deeply challenging, brave piece of writing, worthy of a wide readership.

When I began reading this book I must confess, I was concerned that this was going to be a work directed largely at women, something which as a man I would find difficult to relate to.  Yet the more I read, the more I realized that Colleen’s experiences in a number of respects mirror my own.  As a fellow Gen-X’er, Colleen describes her party life as a college student at nominally Catholic Marquette back in the ’90’s, not all that different from what I experienced at nominally Catholic Georgetown at exactly the same time.  Her gradual realization that she needed to challenge the status quo of a culture focused exclusively on the pursuit of materialistic pleasures, the slow development of a more mature faith tempered by suffering and disappointment, and her often frustrating attempts to find some balance between a career and a personal life are things which I suspect will resonate with many of us from the MTV generation.

Growing up in a culture that insisted happiness depends on resume-building and material security, in order to achieve that personal fulfillment which pop-psychology gurus and fluffy magazine articles assure us is the solution to all of life’s troubles – i.e., be your own god –  over the fifteen-year period covered in her book, Colleen’s life changed radically, but not instantaneously.  It took her time to move from half-hearted, practicing but lazy Catholic, thinking only of pleasure and worldly success, to someone who made choices which the outside world would not understand.  She walked away from meaningless relationships; she left a coveted job at the White House, not knowing how things would work out; she took time away from her career to care for an ailing parent; and she went through a very painful, lengthy period of being unable to conceive children, all of which she bravely recounts in her book.

Along the way, and woven into the fabric of the text and indeed her own life, Colleen comes to know and appreciate the lives of several women, the “sister saints” of the book’s title.  Each one, including St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Faustina, and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, among others, comes into her life at a point when she needs that sister’s example.  What is particularly well-done in the book is that Colleen pauses in her narrative and treats these women, not merely as historical figures with biographical details, but rather as women she can learn from and emulate.  These are not sweet-faced, plaster images standing on a bookshelf but real women, all very different from one another, whose strength and wisdom can be drawn upon by anyone, regardless of their sex.

In looking back over all of the little pink post-it “flags” I stuck in my copy of “My Sisters the Saints” as I went along, I find that many of these are affixed to passages on Colleen’s relationship with her father.  Early on in the book, Colleen mentions the work of French writer Simone de Beauvoir, and her influence on feminist theory.  However it is also worth noting that de Beauvoir shared a similar experience to Colleen’s, as she cared for her elderly mother, which she recounted in her lesser-known book, “Une mort très douce”.  Although their experiences were not dissimilar, in de Beauvoir’s case the fading of her mother reaffirmed her sense of life having no meaning, whereas Colleen finds meaning even in situations so horrible that at times she would rather have run and hide, instead of having to deal with them.

The gradual deterioration of Colleen’s father from Alzheimer’s, and how she dealt with that slow fall of a man full of energy and health into dementia and helplessness, proves to be both heartbreaking reading and a witness to the awakening of her faith, as well as a respect for all life.  In one passage, Colleen recalls riding on a St. Patrick’s Day float through St. Louis along with her parents.  Like the Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans, the participants are supposed to be distributing beaded necklaces to the noisiest onlookers – except Colleen suddenly realizes that the marginalized people in attendance are the ones who should be getting her attention.  As she looks back at her ailing father on the parade float, she realizes “Those outsiders and least ones, in all their forms, reminded me of Dad.”

There is much to learn from and appreciate in this book.  It is not the type of work that Colleen herself might have written earlier in her career, when she was, as she describes it, all “fake smiles and feigned peppiness”.  It is the work of a woman who has been to some very dark places, come out the better for it, and bravely chooses to share those experiences with her readers.

Again, I encourage those of you in the DC area to come along tonight to hear Colleen’s presentation on her book, and for those who cannot make it, to get yourself a copy: you will not be disappointed.