An Unknown Genoese Noblewoman

Sir Anthony van Dyck
1599 – 1641

An Unknown Genoese Noblewoman

Painted circa 1621

39 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches, 100.4 x 74.9 cm



  • (Possibly) Marchesa Lomellini Durazzo, Genoa;
  • with Luigi Grassi (1858 – 1940), Florence;
  • Marcus Kappel (d. 1931), Berlin, by 1909;
  • Ernest G. Rathenau, New York, and by descent to
  • Ellen Ettlinger (née Rathenau), Oxford;
  • with Knoedler & Co., New York;
  • Norton Simon Foundation, Los Angeles, sold
  • Sotheby’s, London 11 July 1973, lot 20 (£180,000);
  • with Brod Gallery, London;
  • Private collection, USA, until 2012.


  • E. Schaeffer, Van Dyck: Des Meisters Gemälde, Klassiker der Kunst, 1909, p. 183.
  • D. von Hadeln, ‘Die Porträtausstellung des kaiser Friedrich-Museums-Vereins’, Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, 1909, XX, p. 297, fig. 3.
  • W. Bode, Die Gemäldesammlung Marcus Kappel in Berlin, 1914, no. 38, illus.
  • G. Glück, Van Dyck: des Meisters Gemälde, Klassiker der Kunst, 1931, p. 165.
  • O. Millar, ‘Van Dyck a Genova’, The Burlington Magazine, XCVII, 1955, p. 314.
  • D. Steadman, ‘The Norton Simon Exhibition at Princeton’, Art Journal, XXXII, Autumn, 1972, no. 1, pp. 35-6, fig. 5.
  • S.J. Barnes, Van Dyck in Italy, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1986, no. 62.
  • E. Larsen, The Paintings of Anthony Van Dyck, Freren (Luca Verlag), 2 Vols., 1988, Vol.2 no 364.
  • S. Barnes et al, Van Dyck: A complete Catalogue of the Paintings, Yale 2004, p. 231, no. II.107.


  • Berlin, Kaiser Friedrich-Museums-Verein, Ausstellung von Bildnissen fünfzehnten bis achtzenten Jahrhunderts: Aus dem Privatbesitz der Mitglieder des Vereins, 31 March – 30 April 1909, no. 30.
  • Genoa, Palazzo dell’Academia, Cento Opere di Van Dyck, June – August 1955, no. 18.
  • Princeton, Princeton University Art Museum, Northern 17th-century Painting: Selections from the Norton-Simon Inc. Museum of Art, 1972, no. 7.

This arresting portrait can be dated on the grounds of costume, hairstyle and technique to the very early years of Van Dyck’s Italian period, when he was based in Genoa. Apart from its palpable beauty, the most striking aspect of our portrait is the speed with which it was executed. Perhaps painted as quickly as a day, well before the artist had any studio assistance, his bravura technique demonstrably reflects an artist ‘on the move’. The creamy impasto is brushed thickly over a darker coral-brown underpaint, and the bold application of dragged paint in the sitter’s sleeves and skirt are coarsely sumptuous in contrast to the sensitively observed rendering of her features. Contrapposto, she turns her head to directly engage the viewer’s gaze; it is a powerful likeness.

Little is known of the portrait’s early history, and nothing of the sitter. The young woman rests her right hand on her swollen belly and lifts her gown to reveal a bulging rust skirt – gestures that suggest she is pregnant. In what is otherwise a restrained palette, the prominent use of red pigment in the treatment of her coral necklace and headdress may also be a reference to her pregnant state. As Barnes has observed,[1] the unusual employment of red in the cuffs of the dresses worn by Elena Grimaldi (Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington) and another unidentified Genoese Noblewoman, previously thought to be Geronima Doria (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), may well have been an allusion to their pregnancy.

Van Dyck's portraits of the Genoese nobility are generally recognized as one of the supreme achievements of Western portraiture and the high point of the artist's career.[2] Due to the early provenance of this painting, the sitter was previously erroneously identified as the Marchesa Lomellini-Durazzo, a noblewoman from the important Genoese family known to have sat for Van Dyck’s most ambitious and celebrated group portrait from his years in the Ligurian Republic: The Lomellini Family (Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland). However, more recently, scholars including Piero Boccardo have suggested that this identification cannot be substantiated and for the present our Genoese lady’s identity remains unknown. We are grateful for the opinion of both Christopher Brown and Piero Boccardo that nonetheless the painting is indeed from Van Dyck’s early Italian period, making the sitter Genoese.

Painted around 1621 - 1627, our portrait falls into the transitional years connecting the last works of Van Dyck’s first Flemish period and the earliest works of his Italian periods, when he was still very much influenced by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577 - 1640). Indeed, our painting has much in common with Van Dyck’s portrait of Rubens’ first wife, Isabella Brant (National Gallery of Art, Washington), painted in 1621 and given as a gift to Rubens prior to Van Dyck’s departure to Italy. Van Dyck set out from Antwerp for Italy in October 1621, staying firstly in Genoa, where recommendations from Rubens provided convenient ingress to Genoese society. Consequently Van Dyck found patronage from the same group of aristocratic families for whom Rubens had been active fourteen years earlier. Genoa was a city at the apogee of its power; at the centre of European finance, with its ruling classes and ‘New Nobility’, it provided a rich seam of patronage for the young artist, and it was here that he was able to observe Rubens’ monumental and imaginative portraits from twenty years earlier.[3] Genoa would remain Van Dyck’s base during his six-year stay in Italy and he spent most of 1625 - 1627 in the city enjoying great success as a portraitist.


[1] Op. cit., pp. 189-190.

[2] O. Millar, ‘Van Dyck at Genoa’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 97, 1955, pp. 312-315.

[3] G. Gorse, ‘A Classical Stage for the Old Nobility: The Strada Nouva and Sixteenth-Century Genoa’, The Art Bulletin, 1997, vol.9, pp.301-327.

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