Sir Anthony van Dyck was the star pupil of Rubens (1577–1640) and began his career working with him in Antwerp. Like his master he painted many subject pictures but his fame rests more as a portraitist. His early works are in the style of Rubens, but broader in technique and more nervous in execution. During his Italian sojourn from 1621–27, he worked mostly in Genoa, where he single-handedly created an enduring, glamorous image of the local aristocracy. He returned to Antwerp where he painted both portraits and religious works for his predominantly Catholic patrons. In 1632 he left for London to become court painter to King Charles I of England. There, he produced much the same sort of visual propaganda for the King and court as he had for the Genoese grandees, and can be regarded as the ancestor of the ‘swagger portrait’, a portrait type which culminated in the works of John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). The great British eighteenth-century portrait painter, Sir Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) said on his deathbed, “We are all going to heaven and Van Dyck is of the company”. In addition to his dashing portrayals of King Charles I’s supremely confident courtiers, Van Dyck painted sensitive portraits of himself, his wife and other artists which have a highly individual nervous energy and a beady intelligence. Notable among these are the oil-sketches, drawings of his intellectual circle, engraved as the Iconographia, which he made in Antwerp in 1625–35.
Some of his Genoese portraits are unexpectedly down to earth, appropriate for an aristocracy based on commerce, for example the Doge Alessandro Longo in Berlin. In his female portraits, like the well-known example in the Frick collection New York, the sitter’s small head is dwarfed by the voluminous draperies, presenting her more as a social adornment. However, at no stage of his career does he fail to be alive to individual personalities and he had the knack of drawing out, like a poultice, the future personalities of children! His strongly and fluently executed head studies, also essays in character, served as a model for academic têtes d’expression of later academic practice.
The Flemish portraits painted after his return from Italy are less flattering and in the case of the Abbé Scaglia in the National Gallery, London show a worldly sense of poise. His more elegant and aristocratic English portraits were mainly of courtiers but even opponents of the King like the Earl of Warwick caved in to his charm. Charles I believed in the divine right of kings, a belief which Van Dyck was happy to propagate. Notable examples of elitist propaganda are the Pembroke Family group (Wilton House, Wiltshire) and the Charles I in the Hunting-Field (musée du Louvre, Paris) where one can imagine the quarry offering no opposition to dispatch by such a serenely complacent Nimrod.
Van Dyck’s religious paintings can be of great elegance but also powerful, for example the turbulent Crucifixion at Courtrai in Belgium. In the realm of Ovidian mythology, the lyrical romance of his Amaryllis and Mirtillo (Pommersfelden) sets the tone for the French eighteenth century, notably the work of François Lemoyne, and the Titianesque Cupid and Psyche from his English period is a restrained but intense record of awakening passion.
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Books on Anthony van Dyck
Stijn Alsteens and Adam Eaker, Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture, New York, 2016.
Karen Hearn, Van Dyck in Britain, London, 2009.
Susan J. Barnes, Nora de Pooter, Oliver Millar and Horst Vey, Van Dyck, a Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, Newhaven, 2004.
Christopher Brown, Anthony van Dyck,1599-1641, exh. cat., London, 1999.
Giovan Pietro Bellori, The Lives of Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects, 1672, trans. Alice Sedgwick Wohl, New York, 2005.
Cornelis de Bie, Het Gulden Cabinet vande Edel Vry Schilder-Const, 1662, reprint, Antwerp, 1971.