The life and career of Antonio Maria Vassallo are not well documented. It is assumed that he was born in Genoa around 1620, though some have even suggested a date as early as c. 1610. Our principal source on Vassallo's early life and training remains the Genoese biographer Raffaele Soprani (1674). Following Soprani's account, Vassallo was born into a family of successful silk merchants, and, like many painters of his station, began his education in grammar school. Although he was encouraged to pursue further studies, Vassallo persuaded his father to allow him to take up painting. His first teacher was Vincenzo Malò (c. 1605-c. 1650), a Flemish artist who had studied with David Teniers the Elder (1582-1649) and Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Malò arrived in Genoa around 1634 and remained there through the mid-1640s. From Malò, Vassallo quickly learned the rudiments of drawing and painting.
Stylistic affinities and shared subject matter suggest that Vassallo studied the works of his compatriots Sinibaldo Scorza (1589-1631) and Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664). He may even have studied in their studios, as Scorza was in Genoa from 1627 to 1631, while Castiglione left for Rome only in 1632 and was again in Genoa from c. 1639 through the late 1640s. From Scorza and Castiglione, as from his teacher Malò, Vassallo would have learned to excel in veristic detail. Having these three different artists as models might also explain why Vassallo moved so deftly between compositions with small figures and those with nearly lifesize figures.
Although he is presently regarded primarily as a painter of mythological scenes and still lifes, most of Vassallo's first known works were altarpieces, as for example Saint Francis with Three Female Saints, dated 1648, for S. Gerolamo in Quarto (now Palazzo Bianco, Genoa). Vassallo continued to receive important public commissions through the end of his recorded career, such as the Martyrdom of Saint Marcello Mastrilli for the Convento di Carignano (now private collection) in 1664. Soprani also mentioned that Vassallo painted great numbers of portraits. Many of these are recorded in contemporary inventories, yet no portraits by Vassallo are known at present (1993).
Related to the mythological and pastoral themes are a growing number of still lifes that have been attributed to Vassallo only in the last 40-45 years, such as Putti, Animals, and Copper Basins, and Copper Basins and Fish (both in private collections, Genoa). Like Malò and Scorza, Vassallo is now known to have created both history paintings and genre scenes.
The circumstances of Vassallo's premature death are as unclear as those of his youth. According to Soprani, the artist fell gravely ill and was encouraged by his doctors to move to Milan where the climate might be conducive to a recovery. He died there between 1664 and 1673. There were no known students and no children to pass on his artistic legacy. The closest heir to Vassallo's style is Giovanni Agostino Cassana (c. 1658-1720), whose still lifes repeat many of the same subjects and motifs. The problem remains, however, where and when Cassana, who was born to Genoese parents in Venice, would have studied with or learned from Vassallo. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Ratti, Carlo Giuseppe and Raffaele Soprani. Le vite de'pittori, scultori et architetti genovesi. 2 vols. Genoa, 1769: 2:227-229.
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De Grazia, Diane, and Eric Garberson, with Edgar Peters Bowron, Peter M. Lukehart, and Mitchell Merling. Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 322.