Magazine article The Spectator

Dynastic Statements

Magazine article The Spectator

Dynastic Statements

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 2 Van Dyck in Genoa (Palazzo Ducale, Piazza Matteotti, Genoa, till 13 July)

Van Dyck in Genoa celebrates the emergence of a painter, familiar to us as Charles I's court artist, by examining his formative years in Italy. Set in the opulent apartments of the Ducal Palace, the exhibition has assembled some 40 works by van Dyck with an equal number of artists ranging from Rubens and Caravaggio to the young Bernardo Strozzi and Cornelis de Wael; it not only traces the evolution of the painter during the crucial decade of the 1620s, but also illuminates a network of power and patronage not dissimilar to the one exploited by van Dyck after his arrival in London in 1632.

Genoa was the first Italian city van Dyck saw, and he returned to it periodically between trips that took him as far afield as Venice and Palermo. More oligarchy than republic, the state was dominated by a few powerful families, actively promoting their own status through the accoutrements of wealth: foreign titles, vast estates, new palaces and, of course, art. The exhibition establishes this context by recreating the picture gallery of one of the great magnates of van Dyck's day, Giovanni Carlo Doria. It's a genial idea for orientation and helps to explain why van Dyck spent so much time in Genoa. There are brooding narratives by Caravaggio and Gentileschi, altarpieces by Vouet, and, above all, some of Rubens's greatest portraits.

Rubens's Genoese portraits established a frame of reference for van Dyck's, but the differences seem as salient as any initial similarity. In works like `Maria Serra Pallavicino' (on loan from Kingston Lacy), Rubens conveyed a sense of highly keyed energy, the sunny optimism of a grande dame seated with a parrot in an imposing gallery. Van Dyck's 'Paolina Adorno Brignole Sale' takes up Rubens's formula but inverts it, for the sitter has vacated her chair to the parrot, seen nonchalantly shedding its feathers. The columnar hall and red drapery are present; yet, like the woman's richly embroidered dress, everything contrives to be understated and fashionably melancholic when compared with Rubensian flamboyance. Van Dyck could, of course, indulge in his own bravura, as with the outstanding `Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo' from Washington, where the subject's sober attire and haughty expression are thrown into relief by a brilliant red parasol opening like a sunburst behind her head. There is more than an element of fantasy in the setting as it appears to be a magnificent loggia in an unspecified, rustic scene, and the attendant African page, decked in outlandish finery, has the pointed ears of a faun. …

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