The Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) transformed the court portrait into a vehicle of great expressiveness.
In the 17th century the city of Antwerp could boast three eminent artists—Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, and Jacob Jordaens—who raised Flemish painting to a level almost unequaled in Europe. The main credit for this achievement belongs to Rubens, the eldest and unquestionably the most brilliant figure of the trio. Because Van Dyck grew up in the shadow of Rubens, it is easy to underrate his genius. Van Dyck has too often been dismissed either as a facile imitator of his predecessor or as a slick and shallow painter of the aristocracy, his only real gift being an ability to flatter his patrons. This superficial judgment can no longer be seriously maintained. He was an immensely gifted and original artist who, far from being eclipsed by the overpowering personality of Rubens, succeeded in establishing his own international reputation as a portraitist of imagination and sensitivity.
Antoon van Dyck (later Anglicized as Anthony Van Dyck) was born in Antwerp in 1599, the seventh child of a prosperous merchant. In 1609 he was registered as a pupil of the minor painter Hendrik van Balen, and in 1618, not yet 19 years of age, he was accepted as a master in the Guild of St. Luke. He entered Rubens's studio as an assistant about 1617 or 1618 and remained there until late 1620.
Van Dyck was astonishingly precocious: the appealing self-portrait in Vienna was made when he was 14 or 15. Rubens was quick to make use of this extraordinary ability. As senior assistant in his studio, the young Van Dyck collaborated in the execution of many of Rubens's larger commissions during this period. Among the works in which his hand may be observed is Rubens's great Coup de lance.
In his independent paintings at this time we see the young Van Dyck striving to become another Rubens. This is particularly true of the early religious subjects, such as St. Martin Dividing His Cloak, which are strikingly Rubens-like in color and composition. A hint of the artist's future development may be discovered in the Betrayal of Christ, which has a quality of nervous excitement that is more indicative of Van Dyck's own temperament. But it is the early portraits that reveal most clearly the poetic sensitivity that was to make Van Dyck the unrivaled interpreter of the aristocracy. Graceful, elegant, and more than a little neurotic, the self-portraits are marked by an intimacy that owes little to Rubens. Among the master-pieces of this period are the portraits of the painter Frans Snyders and his wife.
By November 1620, having entered the service of King James I, Van Dyck was in England. But he soon gave up his duties as court artist and returned to Antwerp in the spring of 1621. In October he set out for Italy, where he was to stay for 6 years.
Van Dyck visited Genoa, Rome, Venice, and Sicily. Artistically speaking, the most important experience was his discovery of Titian, whose influence remained with Van Dyck for the rest of his life. Although he painted some notable altarpieces, of which the Madonna of the Rosary is the most imposing, the finest works of the Italian sojourn are surely his portraits of members of the nobility; his painting of Cardinal Bentivoglio is the very model of a prince of the church, and the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi, one of a series of portraits of Genoese aristocrats, is an elegant variation on a theme by Rubens.
The years 1628-1632, which found Van Dyck settled once more in Antwerp, may be regarded as a kind of bourgeois interlude. Here he produced some of his most lyrical and deeply felt devotional pictures, among them the ecstatic Vision of the Blessed Herman Joseph (1630). Commissions for princely portraits were numerous: Van Dyck's sitters at this time included Marie de Médicis, Prince Frederick Henry of Orange, and the young Prince Rupert. Yet these impressive court pictures are surpassed in sympathetic understanding by his portraits of Antwerp citizens and fellow artists, such as the sculptor Colyns de Nole and his wife and daughter and the painter Martin Rijckaert. These works show with what ease Van Dyck could adapt his style to the prevailing bourgeois atmosphere of his native city. But it was his destiny to become a court artist, and when King Charles I, who had already purchased the beautiful Rinaldo and Armida, summoned him to England, Van Dyck felt obliged to answer the call.
The climactic phase of Van Dyck's career opened in 1632 with his appointment as "principalle Paynter in ordinary to their Majesties, " Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria. The King received the artist with the utmost consideration, awarded him a knighthood, and showered him with commissions.
As court painter, Van Dyck did not spend all his time in England. He was in Brussels and Antwerp during much of 1634 and in October was elected honorary dean of the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke. In 1640 and 1641 he made visits to Antwerp and Paris. By the latter year his health had begun to fail. He died in London in December 1641, leaving his wife, Mary Ruthven, and an infant daughter.
The favors bestowed by Charles I on Van Dyck were not misplaced, for it was at his court that the artist's genius as a portrait painter was fully realized. Three superb equestrian canvases stand out among the many royal likenesses: Charles I Hunting (Louvre, Paris), Charles I with his Equerry (Buckingham Palace, London), and Charles I on Horseback (National Gallery, London), the last recalling in some respects Titian's famous equestrian portrait of Charles V. To turn from these images of majesty to the charming pictures of the royal children is to gain a fuller understanding of the artist's humanity and perception. Still another facet of his complex personality is revealed in the beautiful double portrait of Thomas Killigrew and Thomas Carew. It was through works of this quality that Van Dyck was able to effect a revolution in English taste and to impart a new direction to English art.
There is no good modern biography of Van Dyck. The best book in English is still Sir Lionel Cust, Anthony van Dyck: An Historical Study of His Life and Works (1900), which presents a full and well-documented account of the artist's life but is less satisfactory in dealing with the pictures. Despite its brevity, the chapter on Van Dyck in H. Gerson and E. H. ter Kuile, Art and Architecture in Belgium, 1600-1800 (trans. 1960), offers an authoritative estimate of the painter's genius and his place in Flemish art.
Brown, Christopher, Van Dyck, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983, 1982.