Three dashing young boys stand on the steps of an impressive building. They are known as the Balbi children because the painting was once in the collection of the wealthy Balbi family in Genoa, but we don‘t know who they are. Some have suggested they were members of the Franchi family because the birds perched on the steps are choughs, which appear in the Franchi coat of arms.
Whoever these boys are, their garments are expensive – satin, velvet and brocade, silver and gold braid, with fine ruffs and lace cuffs – and they’re full of life, ready to be off at any moment. Van Dyck’s fine highlights and sensitive modelling show us what each bright-eyed boy looked like, but his subtle and delicate observation of their movements and interactions tells us about their personalities in a way that was groundbreaking. He formulated a new style of portraiture that was hugely influential for centuries to come.
Three dashing young boys stand on the steps of an impressive building, with classical columns behind them and velvet drapery looped up like a curtain drawn up to reveal them in all their finery. During his stay in Genoa in the 1620s, Anthony van Dyck received many portrait commissions from the city’s elite. He painted his sitters in luxurious settings, often flattering them, and introduced a new style of portraiture. Placing these three aristocratic boys outdoors and in an informal pose, for instance, was innovative and fresh.
They are known as the Balbi children because the painting was once in the collection of the wealthy Balbi family in Genoa, but we don't know who they are. It has been suggested that they might actually be members of the rich and influential Franchi family: the birds perched on the steps are choughs, which appear in the Franchi coat of arms. Choughs were expensive pets, but also symbolised education and polite behaviour because they were easily tamed. The eldest points at one of the birds; it looks back at him. The red legs of boy and bird possibly emphasise the importance of this identification and also hint at the boy’s future status as head of the family. Still, there’s doubt. Gerolamo Franchi did have three sons, but when this was painted they were not the age of the children we see.
Whoever the boys are, their garments are extremely expensive – made of satin, velvet and brocade, decorated with silver and gold braid, with fine linen ruffs and lace cuffs – and they seem full of life, ready to be off at any moment. The youngest boy still wears the long skirts of babyhood. Little boys wore them until they were put into breeches at about five years old. His chubby cheeks and hands also mark him out as an infant, and he clumsily grasps a defenceless bird in his fist. In privileged households, boys were given birds as playthings to prepare them for hunting with hawks.
The middle brother places a protective hand around the younger boy’s shoulder. His right hand is on his hip, his hair is fashionably long and casual and he has a faraway look in his eye. His costume was also in vogue: gold frogging across the chest, long breeches and fly-away collar. His pose and dress seem to mark the boy as the stylish second son, with fewer responsibilities than his older brother.
The eldest boy stands a little apart from the others. He carries his sword with assurance and is the most ornately but – oddly – perhaps least fashionably dressed of the three, and his hair is cropped short. His clothes are of perhaps a generation earlier, possibly a family heirloom made of costly fabrics: a symbol of his status. His enormous ruff keeps his chin high and his back straight, as befits the heir to a great family.
Van Dyck’s fine highlights and sensitive modelling show us what each bright-eyed boy looked like, but his subtle and delicate observation of their movements and interactions tells us about their personalities in a way that was groundbreaking. He formulated a new style of portraiture that was hugely influential for centuries to come.
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