Anthony Van Dyck
Biography of Flemish Baroque Portrait Painter to King Charles, Pupil of Rubens.

Pin it



Anthony Van Dyck: Self-Portrait (1634)
Private Collection.

Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

Contents

Introduction
Early Days
Move to England
Analysis of Van Dyck's Life and Paintings

 



Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Thimbleby
and Dorothy, Viscountess Andover
(1637) National Gallery, London.

Introduction

One of the most famous Flemish Baroque painters of the 17th century, and one of the most talented Old Masters of the period, Van Dyck was the leading exponent of portrait art in the Baroque style. He became the leading court painter in England, his most famous works being his elegant portraits of King Charles I. Influenced by his teacher, the great Peter Paul Rubens, Van Dyck was a child prodigy who rapidly became a virtuoso in his trade. Some of his best Baroque paintings include: Portrait of Charles V on Horseback (1620, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), Triple Portrait of King Charles I (1635, British Royal Collection), and A Lady as Erminia, Attended by Cupid (1638, Bleinheim Palace). He also produced a famous Self-Portrait (1634, Private Collection). Along with Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer, he is seen as one of the leading figurative exponents of Baroque painting in Northern Europe, and one of the last great members of the school of Flemish painting. He was also undoubtedly one of the best portrait artists in London, since Hans Holbein (1497-1543).


Triple Portrait Of King Charles I (1635)
British Royal Collection.
Sent to the sculptor Bernini, in Rome,
as the basis for a bust.

WORLDS TOP ARTISTS
See: Best Artists of All Time.

WORLD'S TOP PAINTING
See: Greatest Paintings Ever.

 

Early Days

Born in Antwerp - his father was a prosperous silk merchant - Van Dyck's talent as an artist was evident at a young age, and at the age of 10 he was sent to study fine art painting under Hendrick van Balen (also the teacher of Frans Synders). After graduating, he entered the workshop of Rubens, who went on to describe him as 'the best of my pupils'. Rubens' influence on his style is unmistakable, although art critics consider that Van Dyck's style was less energetic. Already by 1615, at the age of 16, Van Dyck had set himself up as an independent painter and established a workshop with his friend Jan Brueghel the Younger. By 1618, he was admitted into the Painters Guild of Saint Luke. In his early twenties, now established as one of the best young Flemish painters, Van Dyck went to Italy to study the work of the famous painters of the Renaissance including the great Venetian artists Titian and the later Paolo Veronese. He ended up staying for 6 years and established himself as a popular portrait artist to the Italian nobility. Much to the annoyance of his associates, he started displaying "the behaviour of a nobleman rather than an ordinary person... he shone in rich garments... was anxious to make himself distinguished, he therefore wore... gold chains across his chest, and was accompanied by servants".

Van Dyck developed his own individual style of oil painting: that of full-length portraits, the figures being graceful and tall, and generally looking down at the viewer with hauteur. He portrayed his subjects as elegant and refined, often making them more attractive than in real life.

Move to England

He became such a well-known portraitist that King Charles I, summoned him to the English court. Van Dyck duly moved to England and remained there for the remainder of his life. He received a Knighthood for his efforts, along with a generous salary, a house in the City and a suite of rooms at Eltham Palace. He was a huge success in England, and his many portraits of the King and the Royal family were sent as diplomatic gifts to supporters of the increasingly embattled King. It is estimated Van Dyck painted over 40 portraits of Charles alone. Examples of these works include: Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, King of England with Seignior de St. Antoine, 1633 (Buckingham Palace, British Royal Art Collection); Charles I, King of England, at the Hunt, 1635 (Louvre, Paris); and Charles I, King of England, from Three Angles, 1636 (Windsor Castle).

 

Although Van Dyck specialized in portraits because they were in most demand, he attempted to convince the King to commission historical works as well. According to the Hierarchy of Genres, established by the leading European Academies of Art, portraiture came a poor second to history painting, thus Van Dyck wanted to leave his mark in this area. He created some sketches for a large series of works on the history of the Order of the Garter, but when the time came to it, Charles was too short of funds to proceed. Van Dyck’s contemporary in Spain, Velasquez, did not have this problem, and was commissioned to produce numerous large historical paintings as well as portraits. In his later years Van Dyck would try unsuccessfully to win the commission to paint the Grande Gallerie of the Louvre.

Van Dyck maintained a large workshop in London, and employed several assistants. According to one person, the studio was 'virtually a production line for portraits'. He usually worked by creating a single sketch of his subject, which he then handed to his assistants to enlarge onto canvas. He then painted the head himself, with the clothes being completed by specialists. In later years, it is believed that this collaboration resulted in a decline in the quality of the studio's work.

Like Titian and Rembrandt, there were many copies of Van Dyck's works in circulation, and it was not until the 20th century that an accurate labelling of his original works was made. Examples of his other paintings include: Portrait of a Flemish Lady, c.1618 (The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); Portrait of Susanna Fourment and Her Daughter, 1620 (The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); St Martin Dividing His Cloak, 1620 (Windsor Castle); Silenus Drunk, c.1620 (Alte Meister Gallerie, Dresden); Portrait of Isabella Brant, 1621 (The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); Sir Robert Sherly, 1622 (National Trust, Petworth House); The Painter Marten Ryckaert, 1629 (Museo del Prado, Madrid); Nicholas Lanier, 1630 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna); Portrait of a Lady Dressed in Black, Before a Red Curtain, c.1630 (Alte Meister Gallerie); Philip, Lord Wharton, 1632 (National Gallery of Art); Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel and Surrey with His Grandson Lord Maltravers, 1635; Prince of Wales, Future Charles II, King of England, 1637 (Windsor Castle); Children of Charles I, 1637 (Windsor Castle); Lady Elizabeth Thimbleby and Dorothy, Viscountess Andover, 1637 (National Gallery, London) and Princess Mary Stuart and Prince William of Orange, 1641 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

In 1638, he married a Lady in Waiting to the Queen (the daughter of Lord Ruthven) - a match allegedly engineered by the King to keep his artist in England. However, just over a year later Van Dyck died in London. He is buried in Saint Paul's Cathedral, a rare distinction normally only reserved for British people. In the history of art of England, Van Dyck's influence on the style of Baroque portraits and later examples of the genre was immense. Thomas Gainsborough in particular was a huge fan and the elegance of Van Dyck's style is clearly visible in his works.

 

Analysis of Van Dyck's Life and Paintings

There are qualities, or moods, of the human imagination that can seem positively to have been invented, rather than merely visually defined, by certain great artists, even though once revealed they seem essential. Before Giorgione, for example, there is no witness of quite that haunting, bewitched pastoral voluptuousness, which now Giorgione's name by itself is sufficient to evoke, and which is an integral element of European culture. Van Dyck, if less obviously than Giorgione, is one of these mood establishing masters, and without him a certain strain of melancholic elegance is unimaginable.

Though the persistence of this strain throughout his work, from the first precocious self-portrait, painted in Antwerp at the age of fourteen (and now in Vienna) until his last works before his premature death in London in 1641, is undeniable, art historians divide him not without reason into four parts - the Van Dyck of the first Antwerp period, of the Italian period, of the second Antwerp period and of the final English one.

First Antwerp Period

He was born in Antwerp in 1599; the social status of his family is somewhat argued over, but he seems to have come from middle class merchant stock. His formal education, in the liberal arts and sciences, cannot have been very extensive for by the time he was only ten he was apprenticed to a now largely forgotten painter, Van Balen. He was beyond doubt precocious, for by 1618, when he was entered as a master in the Antwerp Guild of Painters, he had already a considerable reputation. By 1619 indeed he was working with Rubens in Antwerp, and though described as an allievo or pupil, was more likely a true if junior collaborator with his celebrated elder.

Italian Period

At the end of the same year his own travels began, and he left for England, wooed away from Flanders by the first connoisseur and collector, in the modern sense, in England - the Earl of Arundel. Something however seems to have gone wrong on this occasion, and though he certainly worked for the king (James I, his stay was brief, and early in 1621 he was back again in Antwerp, only to leave for Italy in the autumn of the same year. There he was to stay for some five and a half years. His immediate destination was Genoa, and it is above all with the rich and aristocratic patrons of Genoa that his Italian sojourn is associated, although the primary Italian inspiration in his work came, even before he had set eyes upon Italy, from the masters of Venetian portrait painting - amongst them, always and above all, from Titian. His love of Venetian painting and his Neo-Venetian style proved highly influential - see, for instance, Neapolitan School of Painting (c.1600-56) and the later Neapolitan Baroque (c.1656-1700).

He now visited Rome, Bologna, Florence, and Venice itself, but mostly he was in Genoa.

Second Antwerp Period

In the autumn of 1627 he returned to Antwerp, and there for the next four years was established, on occasion, as the leading painter. On occasion, because the overriding genius of Rubens was still dominant in Antwerp, radiating thence like a sun over all Northern Europe. But Rubens was frequently away at this time, restless perhaps after the death of his wife, Isabella Brant, and finding distraction in his subsidiary career as a prince of diplomats - he was away on diplomatic errands most notably, for the English at least, in London in 1629-30. There is anyway no evidence that Van Dyck suffered from any lack of work at this time; he was court painter to Isabella, the regent of the Netherlands, and his success was formidable. So much so indeed that it is doubtless at this time that he began, under an excess of patronage, to organise his work on the pattern of a large studio as practiced by Rubens, delegating much of the more mechanical processes to assistants. But even so it may be that even in Antwerp there was not really room - whether a practical room or a psychological one - for two such eminences as Rubens and Van Dyck, and this may well have caused his migration to England in 1632.

English Period

In London his welcome was almost that of a prince, for Charles I of England was avid for fine art. Rubens had stayed in London little more than a matter of months, although he had - amid his diplomatic businesses - accepted the commission from the king for what was to prove the only major decoration in baroque painting in England, the great ceiling in Inigo Jones' Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. But Rubens had gone, so Van Dyck, by now almost Rubens's sibling in international reputation, was all the more to be cherished by the English. He was granted a house in Blackfriars, a golden chain, and a pension; three months after his arrival he was knighted - an honour never before granted to any painter resident in England, though already granted to the transient Rubens. For the remainder of his short life, Van Dyck was based on England; he was away in Antwerp for almost a year in 1634, and then during the last eighteen months of his life after Rubens had died and the whole of Europe seemed open to Van Dyck as his fit and proper successor as the greatest painter in the world, he was back in Antwerp and in Paris, clearly investigating where his best prospects might lie. It may well be that, had he lived, he would have re-established himself on the Continent, but when, in December 1641, death interrupted him he was in London. In his will, he asked to be buried in St. Paul's Cathedral and there, at the king's order, his tomb was duly erected. The tomb itself vanished in the fire of 1666 that destroyed old St. Paul's, but his fame did not. He was only forty-two years old when he died.

Consideration of Van Dyck as painter can only start with Rubens. It is Van Dyck's fate always to have to be considered in the light of Rubens, as the moon in the light of the sun, or the second generation of the millionaire dynasty in the shadow of the founder and creator of the fortune. Van Dyck was heir to the revolution, to the literal reformation of Northern European art in the terms of the Baroque that Rubens had revealed to all Northern Europe on his return from Italy in 1608.

The effect of this revolution in painting, technically described as the yielding of the Mannerism style to the Baroque, was to release the art as if from a profound spiritual neurosis and physical cramp into a dynamic convulsion of movement. That is of course greatly to oversimplify, but art historians can tend sometimes in their analysis of the means by which this was achieved - by the new sophistication of rhythm, for example, or the opening up of the picture space by sharp recessions and dramatic diagonal movement - to understress the obvious, which is that the effect, certainly for contemporaries, was a new intoxicating revelation of the naturalistic possibilities in painting: of its power of sheer illusionism.

In this mode the vitality of Rubens was such that he seemed to impose his own vision on nature, onto the visible world, with such force and irresistible conviction that his colleagues could not help but find him there. Van Dyck was no exception, and he moreover, in his beginnings, worked in actual close collaboration with Rubens, so that in certain paintings on which they both worked it is still impossible to say with certainty where Rubens ends and Van Dyck begins. Certain other pictures still tend to be disputed between the two, and others, certainly by Van Dyck, are so closely modelled on Rubens that it might seem more valid to consider them in terms of Rubens rather than of Van Dyck. Such a state of things is of course normal, perhaps inevitable, in the relationship between an older master of genius and a much younger one still in search of his own identity. What is extraordinary is that Van Dyck, at this tender age, still in his teens, was not entirely swamped by Rubens; but he was not, and here and there in the early work, done before he was twenty-two, he is visible, if still outshone by Rubens, as a clearly distinct personality in his own right. By the time he was twenty-one, in 1620, he was reported to be already producing work that was beginning to be valued almost as highly as that of his master.

 

Thus in an early Self-portrait (the version in Munich is perhaps of late 1622) we find him already lucidly defined. I suppose the most astonishing quality of this painting, for so young a painter, is its sheer virtuosity. But the characterization is very revealing: that slight hint of appeal, though already very far from being posed without confidence, will vanish, but the extraordinary elegance of grace will persist, and so too will the nervous sensitivity that informs the drawing and the movement of the paint, so characteristically here most markedly in the hands. And the sumptuousness will stay; this is no labouring artisan, but a princeling of the arts who will come to look upon the highest in any court at his own level.

Typically, when in Rome, he held aloof from the many lesser Flemish artists who led there a rather disorderly and Bohemian way of life; they called him "il cavaliere". Rubens too was a prince amongst painters, but the comparison of any self-portraits by Rubens with those by Van Dyck will bring out a train of languor in the younger man, a softer and more feminine talent that can even verge dangerously close to sentimentality. Not that I would for a moment suggest that femininity is the equivalent of sentimentality, and indeed many of Van Dyck's early works will dispel any doubt there might be of his ambition and ability to design on a grand scale. For example, a design that he repeated several times, the Betrayal of Christ, or the Kiss of Judas, which dates from about 1620 and of which the best-known version is in the Prado: the very teemingness of that design reflects Rubens, but in spirit, with its rush of broken and flickering colour, it is already inspired more by Italian, Venetian examples, and it has a dramatic and atmospheric mystery that Rubens never encompassed, in which the solid forms seem to flow, almost dissolve, in colour. The St Martin Dividing his Cloak, more monumental in conception, still has this same twin allegiance - in the drawing of the beggar, in that powerful naked back - to Rubens, while the design for the horseman is borrowed from Titian; and if the slight cramping of the whole composition within the picture space is typically Van Dyck of this period, so essentially too is the silvery elegance of it, the sophisticated grace and balance of gesture - all from a man of not more than twenty-two.

While Van Dyck was, to the end, to acknowledge in his work his enduring debt to the inspiration of Rubens and of Titian, it was in the six years he spent in Italy that he reached his maturity and established his own inimitable mastery, Sensitive as a chameleon to his surroundings, both physical and spiritual, he shifted his key of colour when he arrived in Italy; its texture becomes at once more broken and richer, and can in some paintings glow like a banked fire. In his religious art, he evolved gradually a compromise between the strenuously aspiring saints of the Flemish tradition and the sweeter gestures, the sometimes near-morbid ecstasies, of certain Italian painters, and his Madonnas, in their melting femininity and gentleness, seem near relations of those of Guido Reni (1575-1642). More importantly perhaps, in terms of his contribution to man's vision of man, he began in Italy that great series of portraits, so often full-length, for which he is now best remembered.

With dignity, with gravity, with a formidable yet not a chilling reticence, he painted the Genoese aristocracy from the point of view of a fellow aristocrat. It was so to speak a revelation of the visual essence of aristocracy. The famous portrait of the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi-Cattaneo, in Philadelphia, aloof and formally regal, but endowed with an elegance and grace that are infinitely seductive. Her clothes, the Italian light itself, the glowing colour, become almost the vestments of a ceremonial order of society, become indeed almost sacramental. It shows Van Dyck's eclectic genius at its highest, for while it is an ungrudging tribute to Italian precedent (to Veronese in this case), it is also in its dream-like conviction and its tall and fluent dignity, wholly Van Dyck's, and one of the greatest pageant portraits ever painted. It was also in Italy, that in portraits like the White Boy, or the little girl with the resonant title of Marchesa Clelia Cattaneo, he announced a theme on which he has no peer, except perhaps Velazquez: the intimations of aristocracy in children upon whose fragile shoulders worldly greatness is inexorably to be thrust.

On Van Dyck's return to Flanders in 1627, his response to the northern light was immediate; the colour shifts key, becomes cooler, shimmering from the gleaming black in which his Flemish sitters are almost uniformly clad. The social range of 'these sitters seems wider than it had been in Italy, and their diversity is reflected acutely in the diversity of Van Dyck's characterizations of them; but even when drawn from the bourgeoisie, they appear as members of a rich and ordered society of great distinction and elegance. Antwerp, though already declining from its great period of mercantile predominance, was in fact still very much such a society; the contrasts with the far more individualistic bourgeois communities of neighbouring Protestant Holland is very marked. In Holland, at the time that Van Dyck was working in Antwerp, the young Rembrandt was beginning to forge his own style with which he would later explore the mysteries of individual human identity - an essentially Protestant one, held clear of the shadow of encroaching darkness as if by sheer will-power; the image of man alone with himself, searching, uncertain if he is made in the image of God, but determined to find out. Van Dyck's investigation was into a quite different order of identity; while the faces of his sitters are recorded with scrupulous particularity and rare conviction, their total personalities are heroically idealised by means of gesture, pose and costume, and by the grandeur of their mundane setting, and not least by the fluent magnificence of the painter's style. One of the most remarkable spheres in which Van Dyck exploited this idealising vision was in his recording of the persons of his fellow artists, that ambitious series of studies which form the backbone of the great suite of etchings known as the Iconographie and which include some of his most seductive and sensitive characterizations. Implicitly, these studies reject any conception of the artist as mere artisan, and mirror him instead as man of high breeding and culture, elegant, self-assured and easy, as virtuoso: an aristocrat of intellect who is the peer of any aristocrat of mere blood. Yet, if, in his presentation of his sitters, there is always a very public aspect, this does not mean that undertones of intimacy are necessarily absent. During his second Antwerp period, Van Dyck was establishing his mastery in another genre, that of the double portrait. The double portrait, in lesser hands than those of Van Dyck, can only too easily be a mere description of two bodies juxtaposed, but with him it can become almost a portrait of empathy between two human beings made visible. One of the most haunting of his essays in this kind is the painting of a man-wife (traditionally known as Mytens and his wife, but the man resembles the Dutch painter Cornelis van Poelenbergh very closely) at Woburn Abbey. The relationship, the give and take between the two characters, is established by the most precise subtlety of design and handling of the brush, but from the echoes there wells out, inexhaustible, the aura of a gravely serene domestic affection, welded by time and habit into a harmony stronger, it seems, even than time and habit. It is redolent of the most profound intimacy, yet it finds its natural, inevitable expression in ceremony.

 

In Flanders, too, Catholic patronage still gave the artist scope for development of large religious compositions, and he produced a number of baroque altarpieces in the full scale Tridentine tradition; if in these too there is the same cooling of the colour key as in the portraits, there is also an even more assured mastery of composition that derives from Van Dyck's unrelenting study of the old masters in Italy. For some, what may seem the blatancy of emotion, as in the Ellesmere Virgin and Child, so typical of the religious painting of the Counter-Reformation, can be initially unsympathetic, but underlying it is the most unsentimental grasp of form. He painted also a number of heroic, mythological, or poetic, subjects.

It may be in fact that, in moving to England in 1632, Van Dyck hoped to be rewarded by a generous and ambitious patronage that would enable him to exploit to the utmost his gift for large pageant-like decoration. Charles I was the first monarch in England who qualified in his own right as a discriminating and learned patron of the arts, and he was passionately concerned to lift his island, hitherto as far as the arts were concerned relegated to the status of a somewhat retarded and provincial appendage on the fringe of Europe, to a position of parity with the most sophisticated of Continental courts. To this end he was busy acquiring not only great collections of old masters but also the services of the finest living masters whom he could attract to England. But if Van Dyck had dreams of creating a great series of decorations (such as those in the Louvre done by Rubens for Maria de' Medici), he was to be disappointed. He did in fact paint a number of religious and heroic pictures, but the prevailing temper of England was protestant, and outside the limited circle of the court, and particularly that of Charles' French-born and Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria, religious painting was anathema; hardly any of the ones he did have survived. Charles' ambitions of splendour were also circumscribed. Van Dyck's stay in England coincided with an uneasy interlude in English history, when the king dismissed Parliament, and the embryonic traditions of democracy that had grown up under Elizabeth I, in favour of a personal absolutism. For a decade, before the outbreak of civil war in 1642, the surface glittered magnificently, but beneath it lay deep unease and the beginnings of revolt; also, though Charles could manage in many ways quite well without Parliament, the difficulties of raising money without Parliamentary authority, in the form of taxes, proved very stubborn indeed.

Patronage of the arts depended like so many things on money, and there survives even a bill from Van Dyck to Charles I, for paintings delivered, on which the king in his own hand has marked down the prices. The artist was inevitably thrown back on portraits for his livelihood. In portraiture, however, the demand - and throughout his stay Van Dyck catered almost exclusively for the circle immediately about the king himself - was loaded with more splendid opportunities than had existed in Antwerp, either in its merchant society or from the patronage of the regent who had by then withdrawn almost entirely into her religious order. The England that he burst upon had acquired no comparable artistic phenomenon since Hans Holbein, and the portraiture to which they were accustomed before Van Dyck was provincial and relatively old-fashioned, the somewhat rigid presentation of the sitter as if stuffed for posterity, still inhibited by the tradition of stiff and smooth effigies made fashionable by earlier court painters. In contrast, the transformation or apotheosis that Van Dyck offered his clients when they entered his studio must have seemed little short of miraculous. A contemporary English poet even referred to Van Dyck's studio as his "beauty-shop". The procedure, as reported by a great devotee of Van Dyck's, the collector Jabach, could seem perhaps not so far removed from that of a successful beauty-salon, both in its polish and its efficiency.

Having made appointments with his sitters, he never worked more than an hour at each portrait, whether sketching it or finishing it, and when the clock warned him the hour was over, he rose, made a bow to his sitter, to intimate that enough had been done for that day, and made arrangements for another sitting. Then his servants came to clean his brushes, and brought him another palette, ready for the next sitter. He thus worked at many portraits in one day, and with extraordinary rapidity. Having slightly sketched a portrait, he placed his sitter in the attitude he had previously arranged, and with black and white chalk, on grey paper, he sketched the figure and dress, which he designed in a grand style, and with exquisite taste. This drawing he gave to able assistants, who afterwards copied it, with the help of the dresses lent, at his request, by his sitter. When his pupils had painted, to the best of their ability, the drapery in the picture, Van Dyck touched lightly over it, and in a very short time, with his knowledge, produced the truth and art which we admire in his pictures. For the hands, he had in his employ both men and women who served him as models.

Such was the production technique that Van Dyck brought to perfection in his last years in England - to perfection at least of production method. To modern notions, it may seem somewhat repellent; uncomfortably close to mass-production and the factory conveyor belt. And quite certainly the end-product, in these later years, tended to suffer, and the quality of Van Dyck's English portraits is notoriously uneven. There are examples of portraits which, while they are stamped unmistakably as Van Dyck designs, do not exist in what one could orthodoxly call an original version, for the simple reason that there never was an original, in the sense of a painting completed entirely by the master's own hand. For the seventeenth-century client, however, it was perfectly acceptable (though there are instances of Van Dyck's patrons, as there are of Rubens's, insisting that a work be entirely from the master's own hand).

For posterity it means that there are good Van Dycks and bad Van Dycks, but what is important is the quality of the good ones, and they are not rare. In fact, the difference between bad and good is very slight, a matter, it can be, of micromillimetres, yet also the difference between life and death: the individual movement of the great painter's brush, not tracing but discovering the contour; the flicker, the hesitation, articulating the overall design as breath informs the living body - and the movement of Van Dyck's paint, the nervous almost electric sensitivity of his drawing, these offer some of the most seductive pleasures in all European painting.

Yet for most of his clients - the English ones at this time mostly relatively unsophisticated in connoisseurship - it was the grand design that mattered. Van Dyck's predecessors had produced the English as if in airless display boxes, posed much as upright effigies, and anyway dead. With Van Dyck, the windows open, a breeze moves through the room, draperies move in it and the light itself seems to stream with it; this movement is stressed usually by strong diagonal emphasis in the composition. The sitters' clothes are relatively loose about the body, particularly the women's. The total impression was, for the clients, certainly of a startling illusionism; when their portraits were finished, they had confronting them an almost breathing image of themselves. This would be surprising enough in itself, but the reflection, besides being lifelike, was of course also into the bargain flattering.

 

Van Dyck (as I have already intimated earlier) was not a base flatterer; that is, there is little evidence to suggest that he flattered by the manipulation of the sitter's features - by smoothing them out or minimising blemishes, for example. The only case recorded is that of Queen Henrietta Maria, who was long known to a niece only from a portrait by Van Dyck; when they actually met the niece was disillusioned, finding that the queen's teeth stuck out like "defence-works". But I doubt if this was characteristic, and suspect that the reaction of another English female subject was more normal. She was distressed when she saw her own portrait, finding it very stout, but nevertheless was forced to add: "But truly I think it is like the original." But whether his portraits were realistic or not, Whether at times he was a little over-polite to his sitter's vanity in them, these are now academic points of no great moment; his real flattery of them was achieved in other ways, and especially by the absorbing of their ephemeral individual human frailty into a grand and enduring pictorial design - into a work of art.

He could thus bewitch a sitter most simply into immortality, just a straightforward head and shoulders, by the magical mastery of his paint - in the larger designs by the magnificence and the movement of the composition, and not unseldom by a sort of built-in cross-reference to earlier masterpieces. Thus his Earl of Strafford at Petworth refers in design and pose back to a military portrait by Titian, and this reference back works, not like a mere imitation, but as a supporting quotation from an earlier and heroic authority. Van Dyck did not copy from the Italians (though his experience of them, particularly of Titian, was greatly refreshed in England where they were most richly represented in Charles I's collection); rather, he rediscovered and so revitalised their known poses and compositions in the living sitter in front of him. In fact his characterization of the Englishman has proved seminal; it has even been claimed that in a visual sense Van Dyck created, if not the English gentleman, at least the English aristocrat. It is quite true that if, in an English country house, you survey the portraits of its successive owners through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries you will find again and again recurring that typical Van Dyck cast of features, high and proud, and a little equine, and like Queen Victoria, superbly uninterested in defeat.

With women, his successes are even more spectacular. One of his most ravishingly beautiful female portraits is the three-quarter length of the Countess of Bedford at Petworth, in its fluid glowing wealth of colour, its consummate drawing - the extension of the hand into the half-drawn-off glove is one of the most virtuoso passages of paint that Van Dyck ever managed. His female portraits are the first fully feminine ones in England, as also that, more vulgarly, it is to his example that the long and undying tradition of the English "pin-up " portrait can be traced back. The Countess of Bedford hangs with three other Van Dyck portraits of famous beauties at Petworth, and they seem to have been together almost since they were painted, while they early became known to a wider public by engravings. Yet it is also true that their facial beauty is not falsely cosseted, and glamorized. If, for example, you isolate the face of the Countess of Bedford amidst the elegant splendour of paint with which Van Dyck's evokes her presence, you will find the features very far from pretty-pretty, and far perhaps from a modern conception of what constitutes beauty in a female face. The portrait as a whole breathes of femininity, of glamour, but it is the painting with which one might fall in love, not the sitter. The same contrast is visible in one of his finest female whole-lengths, the Penelope, Lady Spencer at Althorp. She rises through that fall of pale blue satin almost like a fountain folding and unfolding upon itself; she has all the dizzy, precarious dignity of youth, and is poised as it were between one movement and the next. A stillness of poise emphasized by the little dog jumping up at her side - and if you look closer to find what has excited the dog, you see it is a lizard, frozen on the stone; a lizard, the quickest thing on earth, that too will be gone should you blink. And yet amongst all this, the face, the defining individuality of the sitter, is observed scrupulously, a little plump as if still with some puppy-fat, a little heavy even, the face of a young English girl not quite certain enough of herself to be sure that she will be asked for the next dance and not have to sit it out.

It was then in portraiture that Van Dyck at his best achieved his masterpieces in his last years. There are however a few rare exceptions. In a number of drawings and watercolour paintings, there is an extraordinary fresh and original apprehension of pure landscape that looks forward a century or more to the great rise of the English water-colour school. And there are one or two subject pictures, most notably an allegory of Cupid and Psyche painted for Charles I and still in the Royal Collection - an echo of all that was best, most sensitive and most delicate in the poetic imagination of Charles's court. It is also an example of the extreme sensitivity of its painter to mood and atmosphere, a subduing of the Baroque into a more classicizing mode but with an elegance, both chaste and voluptuous, that is almost rococo. It was into paintings such as this that he had to sublimate the sensuousness that had earlier informed his religious paintings such as the great Lamentation now in Munich. In that, the pose of the Christ is very close to that of Psyche, but the adaptation of mood and colour to the later subjects reflects exactly the mood and temper of the English imagination.

It is however the portraits that predominate, that stay in the memory, and that have indeed become part of English history. In one most important case, in fact, the name of the artist is hardly to be dissociated from his subject - King Charles I, whose true apotheosis is by Van Dyck in the long series of portraits painted by him, a triumphal and romantic verdict that not one of the countless subsequent inquisitions by historians into the shortcomings of Charles as monarch has been able to sabotage. No king, not even Charles V by Titian, or Philip IV by Velasquez, has been so magnificently pictorialized. The enduring fascination of Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I arises of course in part from the nature of the king's own tragic destiny, and it may be that part of the melancholy that we now read into the king's features arises from hindsight, as we know the fate that was to overtake him on the scaffold on a bleak January day in 1649, when, condemned by his own subjects, his head fell to the executioner's axe.

Yet though Van Dyck himself died eight years before the king, and before England's unease had broken out into civil war, there are ironies built into some of the portraits. The great equestrian portrait in the London National Gallery for example; this was carried out as homage to two masters, to the king himself and to Titian (we know from Bellori that it was painted in deliberate emulation of Titian's famous Charles V at the Battle of Muhlberg). It is indeed a grandiose celebration of Charles as warrior-king, yet, at the same time, in key with that peculiar decade of English history, it has a strangely unreal air. It is about pageantry rather than real war; no one would have dreamed of going into real action in that obsolete armour at the time it was painted. But Van Dyck painted Charles in many roles - as warrior; as monarch robed; as a gentleman-king in that magical pastoral portrait in the Louvre. He painted him also three-in-one, the head portrayed from three different angles on one canvas, and it is this portrait, in close-up, that may persuade one that one is not inventing Charles's melancholy out of sentiment. The triple portrait was sent as a model for Bernini in Rome as "copy" for a marble bust, and an early story has it that the sculptor was so overcome by the overtones of doom in the face that he burst into tears. One might say that Van Dyck formulated the image of Charles the Martyr before the event, yet at the same time his portrayal of Charles and his courtiers made that brief period the most glamorous period of English history.

Works by Anthony Van Dyck hang in the world's best art museums including the British Royal Art Collection, and the Frick Collection New York.

 

• For a chronology of important dates in the evolution of the visual arts, see: Timeline - History of Art.
• For information about the best artists, see: Homepage.


Visual Artists, Greatest
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF OLD MASTER PAINTERS
© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.