Peter Paul Rubens lived and studied in Italy between 1600 and 1609, absorbing the country's cultural riches and artistic heritage. During a stay in Genoa in 1606, he painted the portrait of Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria. The 22-year-old newlywed was from one of the republic's leading noble families. The imposing setting and the marchesa's aristocratic appearance leave little doubt that she was a person of wealth and status. Rubens integrated light and color, as well as the marchesa's pose and the dynamic diagonals of the architecture, to enliven her stately image. Light flooding into the scene creates boldly expressive folds in her heavy satin dress, while the red of the drape adds dramatic emphasis. The direction of her gaze and the perspective of the architecture indicate that the painting was meant to be hung high on a wall—well above the viewer.
A drawing in the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City reveals that the picture was originally even grander: Rubens executed a full-length portrait, with the marchesa standing on a terrace with a view into the distant landscape at the left, but unfortunately, at some point during the 19th century, the canvas was cut down to its present format.
The marchesa's young face, animated by her large, keen brown eyes and gentle smile, is set off by her enormous yet elegant ruff. Her commanding presence is further accentuated by the glowing satin, the lace of her gown, her jewels, and the elaborate hair ornament crowning her carefully curled locks. Behind her, the rich luster of the marble and stone of a palazzo add to the sense of limitless luxury. The Spinola family, major art patrons in Genoa, derived their affluence from mercantile and banking enterprises. It was the norm for families to consolidate their wealth through intermarriage, and Brigida Spinola married her cousin Giacomo Massimiliano Doria in 1605. Widowed in 1613, she later married the widower Giovanni Vincenzo Imperiale, a senator of the Genoese republic who was also devoted to poetry and art collecting. The marchesa's self-possession also may have been engendered by the unusual—for that era—legal rights and civic role that Genoa's constitution granted its women. The future Pope Pius II, while still a youthful secretary to a Cardinal, commented that Genoa was a "paradise for women."
Rubens visited Genoa, a wealthy financial and mercantile center, at least twice and clearly admired the city and its people. Their active lifestyles as bankers, merchants, ship owners, and military leaders would have reminded him of Antwerp, the economic and cultural center of the Southern Netherlands. By the time he made this portrait, Rubens had been in Italy six years. Trained in classical ideals and philosophy, he had travelled from Antwerp to Italy around 1600 to experience firsthand its artistic traditions, not only those coming from antiquity and the Renaissance, including the work of Raphael and Michelangelo, but also those being created by contemporary artists such as Caravaggio. The inspiration he gained from this multifaceted exposure profoundly affected his own style of painting and became the foundation for his future work.
Following his stay in Italy, Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1609, at the start of the Twelve Years' Truce, and became court painter to the regents for the Spanish crown in the Southern Netherlands, Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella. It was a period of peace and prosperity, and Rubens's international artistic reputation resulted in numerous commissions for portraits and grand history paintings. He established a large workshop and developed close working relationships with other important masters, including Anthony van Dyck, whose portrait of Brigida Spinola's second husband, Giovanni Vincenzo Imperiale, is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art (NGA 1942.9.89). Rubens's majestic Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria also inspired Van Dyck's Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo (NGA 1942.9.92), the imposing portrait of another Genoese noblewoman, which is a collection highlight as well.
on reverse transcribed from front by later hand before painting was trimmed: BRIGIDA. SPINVLA. DORIA / ANN: SAL: 1606. / AET: SVAE .22. / P.P. RVBENS Ft (Brigida Spinola Doria. Aged 22 in the year of our Lord 1606. Made by P.P. Rubens)
The sitter's first husband, Marchese Giacomi Massimiliano Doria [1571-1613, married 9 July 1605], Genoa; by bequest to his brother, Giovanni Carlo Doria [1576-1625], Genoa; passed, probably in 1625, to the sitter's second husband, Giovanni Vincenzo Imperiale [1582-1648, married 4 August 1621], Genoa; probably the sitter, until her death; probably by bequest 1661 to the sitter's stepson and son-in-law, Francesco Maria Imperiale, Mantua; Imperiale Family, Genoa and Mantua; gift from the head of the Imperiale Family to Rati Opizzone's father-in-law; by inheritance to Rati Opizzone, Counselor of the State in Turin, by 1840. Simon Horsín-Déon [1812-1882], Paris, by 1848. J. Pariss, London, by 1854; (sale, Christie & Manson, London, 4 February 1854, no. 76, bought in); purchased after the sale by (Charles J. Nieuwenhuys, Brussels and London), for 60 guineas; (his sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 17 July 1886, no. 92); (Charles J. Wertheimer, London), for 304.10. Probably Lawrence Currie [d. 1934], Minley Manor, Hampshire; by inheritance to his son, Betram George Francis Currie, Minley Manor; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 16 April 1937, no. 116); purchased by (Arthur Goldschmidt, London) for (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London and New York); sold 1957 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York; gift 1961 to NGA.
- Great Portraits by Famous Painters, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1952, no. 6.
- Flemish Art, 1300-1700, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1953-1954, no. 180.
- Exhibition of Art Treasures for America from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1961-1962, no. 81.
- P.P. Rubens: Paintings - Oilsketches - Drawings [part of Pietro Pauolo Rubens: Rubensjaar 1577-1977], Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, June-September 1977, no. 7, repro.
- Rubens in Italien: Gemälde, Ölskizzen, Zeichnungen [part of Peter Paul Rubens 1577-1640], Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, October-December 1977, no. 91, color repro. (in Katalog I).
- Baroque Portraiture in Italy: Works from North American Collections, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 1984-1985, no. 60, repro.
- Pietro Paulo Rubens (1577-1640), Palazzo della Ragione, Padua; Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome; Società per le Belle Arti ed Esposizione Permanente, Milan, 1990, no. 23, repro.
- The Age of Rubens, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art, 1993-1994, no. 8, repro.
- A Gift to America: Masterpieces of European Painting from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, four venues, 1994-1995, no. 11, repro. (shown only at last two venues: Seattle Art Museum and California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco).
- Van Dyck a Genova: Grande pittura e collezionismo, Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, 1997, no. 19, repro.
- L'Età di Rubens. Dimore, committenti e collezionisti genovesi, Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, 2004, no. 29, repro.
- Rubens: A Master in the Making, The National Gallery, London, 2005-2006, no. 22, repro.
- El retrato del Renacimiento [Madrid title], Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian [London title], Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid; National Gallery, London, 2008-2009, no. 126, repro. (shown only in Madrid).
- Seymour, Charles. Art Treasures for America: An Anthology of Paintings & Sculpture in the Samuel H. Kress Collection. London, 1961: 144, fig. 135, color fig. 136
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 310, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 118
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 105, repro.
- Jaffé, Michael. "Some Recent Acquisitions of Seventeenth-Century Flemish Painting." Studies in the History of Art 1969 (1970): 26-29, fig. 33.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 314, repro.
- Eisler, Colin. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, 1977: 101-103, figs. 95, 96, color repro (detail).
- Pope-Hennessy, John. "Completing the Account." Review of Colin Eisler, Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, London 1977. Times Literary Supplement no. 3,927 (17 June 1977).
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 259, no 327, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 361, repro.
- Boccardo, Piero. "Ritratii di Genovesi di Rubens e di Van Dyck: Contesto ed identificazioni." Studies in the History of Art 46 (1994): 80-81, repro. no. 1.
- Cataldi Gallo, Marzia, "Per una Storia del Costume Genovese nel Primo Quarto del Seicento." Studies in the History of Art 46 (1994): 119.
- Jaffe, Michael. "On Some Portraits Painted by Van Dyck in Italy, Mainly in Genoa." Studies in the History of Art 46 (1994): 141-142.
- Zuffi, Stefano and Francesca Castria, La peinture baroque. Translated from Italian by Silvia Bonucci and Claude Sophie Mazéas. Paris, 1999: 127, color repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 223, no. 179, color repro.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Flemish Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2005: 154-159, color repro.