Van Dyck’s Marchesa Cattaneo (c.1622-7) at The Frick

Anyone familiar with the gestures of a painter should immediately recognize the lady's hand as holding an unseen paint-brush. Though fingering a chain, the artist imagines her as holding "a brush". She is "a painter standing before her canvas".

Confirming that observation is fairly straightforward. She resembles the painter as seen in a contemporaneous self-portrait. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Van Dyck, Marchesa Cattaneo (c. 1622-7) The Frick Collection

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The resemblance - chin, mouth, nose, hair color - suggests that Van Dyck never intended an accurate likeness even if the Marchesa wanted one. We cannot even be certain that she was a redhead. The hair color of Charles I differs from one portrait to another depending on who is painting him. In every case that we can check, his hair color matches the artist's.1 Patrons complained about how good artists painted a poor likeness, not realizing that artists and mere painters have different objectives: one paints poetry, the other reality.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Van Dyck's Marchesa Cattaneo (c.1622-7)
Right: Detail of Van Dyck's Self-portrait (c.1622-3), rotated

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The Marchesa fingers the gold chain that Van Dyck and others so coveted as gifts from rulers to their favorite artists. It was a common symbol for their stature. Van Dyck himself fingers a gold chain given to him by King Charles I of England in a later self-portrait. What he could only depict allegorically in his so-called portrait of the Marchesa in 1622 became fact in 1632.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Van Dyck's Marchesa Cattaneo (c.1622-7)
Right: Van Dyck, Self-portrait with a Sunflower (c.1633)

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Other evidence that the Marchesa is an alter ego of the painter is more subtle. Totally flat-chested, her body from the neck downwards appears androgynous. The poetic mind, like the purified soul, must be androgynous to be whole.  

This relatively simple composition is an easy introduction to the allegorical content of Western art. Remember the features to look out for: the hand gesture of a painter, the resemblance to a self-portrait and the look of an androgyne. The position of the Marchesa's fingers, for instance, invisibly holding a brush is a common feature in portraits of women, seen for instance two centuries later in Edouard Manet's Young Lady of 1866.

Captions for image(s) above:

Van Dyck, Marchesa Cattaneo (c. 1622-7) 

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

 

1. See my book available to read free online, Every Painter Paints Himself, pp. 80-81

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