In response to dynastic concerns of Genoese patricians, Anthony van Dyck began to portray individual children while in Italy. Painted in 1623, the likenesses of Filippo and Maddalena Cattaneo are among the most endearing of Van Dyck's portraits, in the way they capture the radiant innocence of childhood. As the youngsters look out with wide open eyes and gentle smiles, they captivate the viewer with the disarming directness of their expressions. Nevertheless, Filippo and Maddalena, depicted as the grown-ups they will become, are remarkably serious, as though already conscious of their future adult responsibilities.
Filippo, his hair parted in the middle, stands with one arm akimbo as would any young nobleman posing for a formal portrait. His elegant wardrobe consists of a jerkin, breeches, a cape embroidered with gold threads, a flat lace collar, and long yellow stockings. The inscription on the wall at the left reveals that Filippo is four years, seven months old. Despite his charming innocence, the boy—his father's heir—assumes a posture of authority and engages us with his frank gaze. His left arm is cocked on his hip, while the other grasps the iron chain that restrains a mastiff puppy, an attribute of constancy and faithfulness. The puppy, not interested in posing, looks wistfully to his left, presumably to the portrait of Filippo's sister Maddalena, which must have hung on that side.
Maddalena, whose golden tresses are similarly parted in the middle, wears a white woolen dress with large puffy sleeves. The front part of the dress is covered by a fine linen apron trimmed with lace. Standing more frontally than her brother, Maddalena clasps an apple, a gesture symbolic of both chastity and fertility. Although Van Dyck situated both children on a wide marble step before a dimly lit architectural form, he softened the starkness of Maddalena's setting by placing her before a large red pillow decorated with gold tassels.
A document of 1692 confirms that the two children were the offspring of Marchese (marquess) Giacomo Cattaneo and his wife, Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo, whose full length portrait Van Dyck also executed in 1623 (National Gallery of Art, 1942.9.92). It is probable that Van Dyck first portrayed the Marchesa, after which his satisfied sitter and patron asked him to paint her children as well. In the Cattaneo palace in Genoa, the children's pictures flanked the portrait of their mother.