As one of the most exciting recent rediscoveries in Rubens’ portrait oeuvre, this powerful and enigmatic portrait was painted in the early part of what has come to be known as his Italian period, either in Italy or during his first trip to Spain, between circa 1603 and 1606.
Painted in spontaneous, bravura strokes, with the surrounding ochre-brown ground layers left uncovered, this portrait may have been an unfinished work or a sketch painted quickly from life that would serve as a model for a more finished portrait. The great freedom of line and strong chiaroscuro imparted by the brushwork is remarkable, and demonstrates how Rubens wrested from his Italian contemporaries the great tradition of Italian portraiture, illustrating his ability to absorb the most diverse influences. Utilising light in a vivid and dramatic way, the artist captures a sense of movement in the sitter’s ruff and costume, yet in her face and hands expresses a sculptural delicacy with smooth strokes of creamy impasto. With her parted red lips and intense gaze, she is forever suspended in an interrupted moment playing with her chain.
In May 1600, Rubens travelled to Italy, where he was introduced in Venice to Vincenzo I Gonzaga (1562-1612), Duke of Mantua, and appointed a painter to the court in Mantua. This position afforded him many opportunities to travel – to Rome, Florence, Madrid, Valladolid and Genoa, among others, and it is in some of these cities that he painted both large altarpieces for important churches and grand portraits. In March 1603, Rubens was sent by the Duke on a diplomatic mission to Spain carrying gifts and paintings for King Philip III. The possibility that this portrait may have been conceived during this time is attested to by the sitter’s style of dress, which Marieke de Winkel has identified with contemporary Spanish fashion, dating it to shortly after 1600 in the particular sleeve and the distinctive ruff rising to a point above the sitter’s head (op. cit., 2009).
Rubens and his gifts reached Valladolid after a long and arduous journey of continuous rain for twenty-five days, causing the near ruin of the gifted paintings, which unexpectedly required the artist to repair the damages suffered. Given the mammoth task and the time it consumed, it is thus understandable that so little of his work survives from his period in Spain, yet it is this subsequent rescue of the paintings that so impressed the Spanish court, leading to one of his greatest commissions in the Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma (Madrid, Museo del Prado). Rubens’ letters also allude to portraits commissioned by the King, including those of the ladies of the court for the Duke of Mantua’s ‘Gallery of Beauties’. Although no such portraits by Rubens survive, making it unclear as to whether he fulfilled his commission, it is highly possible that the present work may have served as the study for one such portrait, which he intended to work up into a more formal finished painting at a later date, probably upon his return to Mantua. Indeed, it is hard to think of another artist for whom the oil sketch played such an important role in the creative process.
The physiognomic conception of this sitter’s face can certainly be compared to the portraits in the surviving bust-length fragments of the dismembered family portrait of The Gonzaga Family in Adoration of the Holy Trinity of 1604-5, Rubens’ most important commission while serving the Duke of Mantua, such as in the face of Francesco IV Gonzaga (fig. 1; Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). Yet the deeper tonality and the rapid free handling of the present picture shows a greater consistency to Rubens’ work during his sojourn in Genoa, a city renowned as a paradiso delle donne, where it may have been one of a number of female portraits that the artist painted from December 1605 to mid-1606. This sitter’s physiognomy bears a striking resemblance to one such beauty in a bust-length Portrait of a lady by Rubens possibly from this period, with the comparably distinctive chin, oval face, large almond eyes and tall hairstyle, also described as having auburn hair, black eyes and a brilliant complexion (whereabouts unknown; see F. Huemer, Corpus Ruenianum Ludwig Burchard: Portraits, XIX(I), London, 1977, p. 186, no. 55, fig. 135). By 1605, this style of high hairdressing largely fell out of favour in Italy and was replaced by a fashion of small curls, so strikingly represented among Rubens’ Genoese portraits. Indeed, while the sitter’s costume attests to the prospect that this portrait could have been painted in Spain, it does not exclude the Spanish-oriented Italian courts in Genoa and Naples, where such styles were also worn.
In Genoa Rubens created a new type of portrait, with splendid depictions of aristocratic ladies in fashionable attire, set in fully realised settings. One of his most opulent is that of Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria painted in 1606 (fig. 2; Washington, D. C., National Gallery of Art), whose rich brown tones have much in common with the present picture. While the soberly dressed young woman in the present portrait would have also been a member of the nobility wishing to exhibit her wealth and beauty, in the dramatic execution and unfinished, sketch-like quality of this picture, Rubens foregoes grandiose ornamentation for a psychological depth not afforded to even some of his most aristocratic patrons.
While the question of whether this portrait was painted during Rubens’ first trip to Spain or later in Genoa must remain open, Rubens' skilful and creative authority in this picture indicates a level of maturity that went beyond his early years in Mantua, displaying a painter whose mastery had already asserted itself.