The resplendent Marchesa Cattaneo strides onto the terrace of her Genoese palazzo while her African servant shields her with a bright red parasol. Her steady gaze and proud bearing tell us that she is a confident woman. Anthony van Dyck had a remarkable ability to understand his patrons' aspirations and to express them in his portraits, whether it be the inner strength of a Flemish burgher, the dashing bravura of a military hero, the innocence of a young girl, or the grace of an aristocrat such as Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo. Partly because of the extraordinary surety of his brushwork and the fluidity of his forms, Van Dyck convinces the viewer that his characterizations are just. In truth, however, one knows little or nothing about the personalities or ambitions of most of his sitters, particularly those he portrayed in Genoa. Nevertheless, this portrait's details and composition assure us of the sophistication of this altera donna, or grand lady. The Marchesa's exceptional and disproportionate height emphasizes her stature, literally and figuratively. The red sunshade emphasizes the viewer's position beneath hers and extends her presence, forming a halo around her head against a dramatic sky. The red cuffs break up the severity of the Marchesa's lavish, black costume and draw attention to her hands—especially to the sprig of orange blossoms in her right hand, a traditional symbol of chastity.
Without knowing his actual state of servitude, the black attendant holding the marchesa's parasol is a reminder of the active slave trade from Africa to Genoa. His inclusion in the portrait may derive artistically from Titian, the Italian Renaissance artist Van Dyck admired and who portrayed black servants in several of his canvases.