Normally, standing in front of a painting in the Scottish National Gallery during the Edinburgh Festival period is to be in the eye of a storm, akin to taking the part of a TV reporter doing a piece to camera surrounded by digitally speeded-up crowds. It was thus a nice surprise when late on a Sunday morning I found Van Dyck’s Lomellini family rehung away from their normal wall to accommodate the temporary show of American landscapes, and almost as lonely as when he painted them nearly 400 years ago.
I frequently see this painting but I’d never previously been struck so strongly by its air of unreality. Van Dyck’s portraits necessarily have an element of the stage-set as the sitters play a variety of roles. Yet on this occasion the Lomellinis seemed more aware of the game than usual. Their faces wore expressions that suggested a family environment different from the obvious one, perhaps more dysfunctional and modern than we might think.
Picture the scene: Giacomo Lomellini, Doge of Genoa (let’s call him ‘Dad’), is not present in the painting, since Genoese custom frowns on it. Therefore his family endure the tedious business of portraiture without him. Or perhaps ‘Dad’ has had to work at the weekend, leaving his long-suffering second wife to take their small children and the two older sons from his first marriage on their planned day out to a stately home. She organises a family snapshot in period costume.
The first elder son, visibly swaying and staring into the middle distance, has clearly overdone it in the beer garden at lunch. The second didn’t and wishes he had, gazing enviously at the jollier (albeit slightly grimmer) revels in Rubens’ Feast of Herod, currently hung to the left of the Van Dyck canvas by the NGS and thus conveniently in his bored eyeline.
The set of the small boy’s mouth shows his annoyance at being corralled into costume while the wife of the Doge has a severe face that amply demonstrates her feelings at how things have turned out, planted as she is like a great black pyramid between the two sets of offspring. Only the girl’s face betrays any interest in the situation: the hint of a smile and the look beyond her family at something happening out of shot. The rucked up carpet under her feet and the sulky look from her brother suggest she has arrived with enthusiasm. The stage could be set for further drama.
But if group psychology doesn’t appeal, there’s always the gorgeous quality of the painting. Van Dyck’s usual bravura simplification is applied to the costumes and background: the pale grey slithering of the woman’s cuffs and ruff where our eyes are left to fill in the actual detail, the smeared highlight on her thigh. The fine work is reserved for where it matters. The small area featuring the girl’s hands, left sleeve and bag strap has touches that are poetry in white and gold paint.
People often complain that the art of the past does not speak to them or that they have no way in. The Lomellini Family portrait functions as a 10’ by 10’ square of modern family life projected forward from 1625.
Matt Cambridge (Art History, BA, MA (2010))
Matt is the author of Richard Parkes Bonnington: Young and Romantic, published by Nottingham City Museums &Galleries (2002), ISBN 978-0905634586, and regularly contributes to The Art Book and the online journal Cassone. Matt lives in Edinburgh.