Anthony, or Antoon if we use his Flemish name, van Dyck was born in Antwerp, in what was then the Spanish controlled Netherlands. Something of a child prodigy, his talent as a painter was quickly recognised. At around the age of 16 he was already capable of operating on his own as an artist, after just 6 years under the tutelage of Hendrick van Balen. Working with Breughel the Younger and Rubens, van Dyck soon established a reputation as a rising star. According to art critics, he felt overshadowed by Rubens, prompting his decision to expand his horizons and go to Italy.
His Italian sojourn would last 6 years. According to the artist Bellori, he cut something of a dandified figure, swaggering onto the scene in his rich garments with a rather aristocratic demeanour. His first base was the Ligurian city of Genoa, where he painted the prosperous nobles in full-figure portraits and in family groupings. In those days, the Genoese aristocrats still had sufficient money to be able to indulge their penchant for grandiose familial representations.
In 1624 he moved to Palermo at one of the most inauspicious times in the city’s history. Shortly after the painter’s arrival the dreaded plague hit town, devastating the population. He must have regretted accepting the Spanish Viceroy’s invitation, yet he still remained in Sicily for 18 months, painting 16 canvases that still exist today. If there were others, they have disappeared from the annals of western art.
Needless to say, he painted the Viceroy who had invited him, one Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy. In the portrait we see a ruddy-faced man with a goatee beard and the obligatory ruff, painted in intricate detail by van Dyck. The picture is recognised as one of his best in the earlier stages of his career. Filiberto was destined to die in the bubonic outbreak, leaving this image for posterity.
Van Dyck sought out the venerable female artist, Sofonisba Anguissola in her ninety second year; although Anthony thought she was older. Sofonisba was ground-breaking in her day, a female painter apprenticed to Bernadino Campi who subsequently cut her own path in the male-dominated art world. Luckily van Dyck took his sketch pad with him on the visit, the upshot of which was a small portrait of Sofonisba now hanging on the walls of the writer, Vita Sackville-West’s former country pile, Knole House, in the English county of Kent.
As time went by in Palermo, the relentless inevitability of the plague had an impact on the themes van Dyck painted in Sicily. Religion began to feature large in his commissioned works. Among the subjects he completed there was a Stoning of St Stephen and a St John the Baptist. The critic and Sicilianophile, Andrew Graham-Dixon, is persuaded the latter of the two shows influences from that master of light and shade, Caravaggio. The most place specific of his works along these lines, however, were his canvases dealing with the story of St Rosalia.
In the very same year of Anthony’s arrival, St Rosalia’s bones were said to have been discovered on Monte Pellegrino, the famous rocky outcrop looming over the Conca d’Oro. Her relics were then paraded through the streets in an attempt to combat the deadly disease infecting the populace. This move caught the zeitgeist and stirred the hearts of Palermitans to such an extent that it has been repeated ever since. Van Dyck’s commissions reflected this new fervour and he was happy to create the images required.
St Rosalia Before St Mary has the saint looking upwards towards the infant Jesus, her long flowing locks falling over her shoulders and her red silken garments. Angelic cherubim float in the clouds above her head. It seems that this was just one of five images the Fleming created, all completed with the same fundamentals. The style was so appreciated that it set something of a precedent for images of Rosalia.
Clearly, van Dyck was able to adapt to circumstances and paint to order. These pictures are in marked contrast to his later years as portraitist of the English court, when foppish cavalier hats and roll-topped boots were all the rage. Anthony married into the English aristocracy and, ever the dandy, was happy to adopt the titles and fashions of the time.
Although he travelled frequently and fell ill in Paris, he was to die in London whilst at home in Blackfriars. Traditionally remembered for his massive influence on English portraiture, evidenced by the studio he established; a 2012 exhibition at Dulwich Art Gallery brought together all his Sicilian works for the first time. The resulting book, Van Dyck in Sicily 1624-1625: Painting and the Plague gives us an alternative view of the painter’s life, works and legacy.
Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains.’
Andrew is also the translator of Alejandro Luque’s compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence.
They are both available worldwide. Click the covers below to view them on Amazon:-