Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria was a young Genoese from one of the leading patrician families, recently married and 22 years old at the time the work was completed. The imposing setting and the marchesa’s stately appearance leave little doubt that she is a person of wealth and status. The direction of her gaze and the perspective of the architecture indicate that the painting was meant to be hung high—significantly above the viewer.
The lady’s head emerges like a lotus from the center of an elegant, platter-like ruff. Glowing satin, lace, and jewels set off her pinkened and powdered face, accentuated by a flowing red drapery and an elaborate hair ornament that crowns her carefully curled locks. The rich tones of the marble and stone edifice before which she stands, likely her family palazzo, add to the sense of limitless luxury.
However refined her accoutrements may be, Rubens made his subject personable with an emergent smile and enormous, keen brown eyes. The marchesa’s self-possession also may have been engendered by the unusual freedoms upper-class women in Genoa enjoyed. Pope Pius II, while still a youthful secretary to a cardinal, commented that the city was a “paradise for women."
Originally, the picture was even grander: a full-length portrait with a view into the distant landscape at the left. This made it more apparent that the setting is outdoors, on a terrace. A drawing of the painting (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York) records its earlier appearance. During the 19th century, the canvas was cut down to its present state.
The Spinola family, major art patrons in Genoa, derived their affluence from mercantile and banking enterprises. It was commonplace for families of means to consolidate their wealth through intermarriage—Brigida Spinola married her cousin Giacomo Massimiliano Doria in 1605. She became a widow in 1613 and later married Giovanni Vincenzo Imperiale, a senator of the Genoese republic who was also devoted to poetry and art collecting. Imperiale’s portrait by Rubens protégé Anthony van Dyck is also in the National Gallery of Art collection.
Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria also inspired Van Dyck’s portrait of another Genoese noblewoman, Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo, another Gallery collection highlight.