Dulwich Picture Gallery’s latest exhibition, Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague, 1625-25, presents a highly focused exploration of the seventeenth-century, Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck during the years 1624-25 (ends 27 May, 2012). Van Dyck lived in Italy, and principally Genoa, for six years having moved there in 1621, however this concise exhibition focuses on the relatively un-explored period of his residence in Palermo, Sicily.
Young – in his early 20s – and financially sound, Van Dyck presented himself, as Self-Portrait of 1620-1621 attests, in the mold of a ‘noble artist’, supporting a retinue of servants and sporting a considerable array of gold jewelry. It was in this reputable guise that he travelled to Palermo at the bequest of Viceroy Emmanuel Philibert; the portrait, Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy, Prince of Oneglia (1624, below) being the key commission to arise from this venture. Upon his arrival in Sicily, however, disaster struck and plague ravished the island claiming the life of Van Dyck’s patron barely three months after the painting of the portrait.
Rumours abound as to how Van Dyck spent his time in Palermo whilst the city was quarantined – bargaining with pirates in an attempt to escape is a particularly fanciful example – yet Dulwich’s exhibition brings together a number of works that, for the first time, testify to the artist’s output and amply illustrate his time in the plague-ravished city. Among them are all five of Van Dyck’s Saint Rosalie paintings, sumptuous depictions of the medieval hermit whose bones, discovered and paraded through the streets of Palermo, allegedly lifted the plague’s grip on the city. Note the putti in the lower left of Saint Rosalie interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo (1624, below) who pinches his nose – a sure sign of the disease that underlies the painting’s conception.
Similarly engaging is the story behind the painting, Sofonisba Anuissola (1624, below), uniquely accompanied by a rarely loaned sketchbook of Van Dyck’s from the British Museum that shows his preparatory work. Sofonisba was arguably the most famous woman in Palermo at that time. At 96 years of age and a recognized artist in her own right, Sofonisba had been artistic tutor to the Viceroy’s mother; very much a celebrity of her day. Her sitting for Van Dyck represented a meeting of like-minded individuals: one embarking on a prominent career and the other coming towards the end of an illustrious one.
Indeed, the catalogue for the exhibition reveals a fabulous exchange, taken from Van Dyck’s dairy, during which Sofonisba advises the young artist on his technique:
“Portrait of the painter Sofonisba, done from life in Palermo in the year 1624, on the 12th July: her age being 96 years, still with her memory and brain most quick, and most kind, and although she has lost her sight because of her old age, she enjoyed to have paintings put in front of her, and with great effort by placing her nose close to the picture, she could make out a little of it, and she took great pleasure in that. As I was doing her portrait, she gave me various recommendations, of not to take the light too high, so that the shadows in the wrinkles of old age should not be too strong, and many other good suggestions. And she also told me part of the story of her life, from which I learnt that she was a painter from nature and a miraculous one, and her greatest misfortune was that she could not paint any longer because of her lack of eyesight: even though her hand was still firm and with no tremor whatsoever.”
This extract and the painting that it references are symbolic of this small yet exquisite exhibition: it is a story of life and vitality, but with death and despair close at hand; an ominous presence looming just beyond the picture frame.
For details of the exhibition and to buy tickets, click through to Artfinder’s recently established listings page.