Sir Anthony van Dyck (many variant spellings; 22 March 1599 – 9 December
1641) was a Flemish Baroque artist who became the leading court painter in
England. He is most famous for his portraits of King Charles I of England and
Scotland and his family and court, painted with a relaxed elegance that was to
be the dominant influence
Sir Anthony van Dyck
(many variant spellings; 22 March 1599 – 9 December 1641) was a Flemish Baroque
artist who became the leading court painter in England. He is most famous for
his portraits of King Charles I of England and Scotland and his family and
court, painted with a relaxed elegance that was to be the dominant influence on
English portrait-painting for the next 150 years. He also painted biblical and
mythological subjects, displayed outstanding facility as a draftsman, and was an
important innovator in watercolour and etching.
With the partial exception of Holbein, van Dyck and his exact contemporary Diego
Velázquez were the first painters of pre-eminent talent to work mainly as Court
portraitists. The slightly younger Rembrandt was also to work mainly as a
portraitist for a period. In the contemporary theory of the hierarchy of genres
portrait-painting came well below history painting (which covered religious
scenes also), and for most major painters portraits were a relatively small part
of their output, in terms of the time spent on them (being small, they might be
numerous in absolute terms). Rubens for example mostly painted portraits only of
his immediate circle, but though he worked for most of the courts of Europe, he
avoided exclusive attachment to any of them.
A variety of factors meant that in the 17th century demand for portraits was
stronger than for other types of work. Van Dyck tried to persuade Charles to
commission him to do a large-scale series of works on the history of the Order
of the Garter for the Banqueting House, Whitehall, for which Rubens had earlier
done the huge ceiling paintings (sending them from Antwerp).
A sketch for one wall remains, but by 1638 Charles was too short of money to
proceed. This was a problem Velázquez did not have, but equally van Dyck's
daily life was not encumbered by trivial court duties as Velázquez's was. In his
visits to Paris in his last years van Dyck tried to obtain the commission to
paint the Grande Gallerie of the Louvre without success.
A list of history paintings produced by van Dyck in England survives, by Bellori,
based on information by Sir Kenelm Digby; none of these still appear to survive,
although the Eros and Psyche done for the King (below) does. But many other
works, rather more religious than mythological, do survive, and though they are
very fine, they do not reach the heights of Velázquez's history paintings.
Earlier ones remain very much within the style of Rubens, although some of his
Sicilian works are interestingly individual.
Van Dyck's portraits certainly flattered more than Velázquez's; when Sophia,
later Electoress of Hanover, first met Queen Henrietta Maria, in exile in
Holland in 1641, she wrote: "Van Dyck's handsome portraits had given me so fine
an idea of the beauty of all English ladies, that I was surprised to find that
the Queen, who looked so fine in painting, was a small woman raised up on her
chair, with long skinny arms and teeth like defence works projecting from her
mouth..." Some critics have blamed van Dyck for diverting a nascent tougher
English portrait tradition, of painters such as William Dobson, Robert Walker
and Issac Fuller into what certainly became elegant blandness in the hands of
many of van Dyck's successors, like Lely or Kneller. The conventional view
has always been more favourable: "When Van Dyck came hither he brought
Face-Painting to us; ever since which time ... England has excel'd all the World
in that great Branch of the Art’ (Jonathan Richardson: An Essay on the Theory of
Painting, 1715, 41). Thomas Gainsborough is reported to have said on his
deathbed "We are all going to heaven, and Van Dyck is of the Company."
A fairly small number of landscape pen and wash drawings or watercolours made in
England played an important part in introducing the Flemish watercolour
landscape tradition to England. Some are studies, which reappear in the
background of paintings, but many are signed and dated and were probably
regarded as finished works to be given as presents. Several of the most detailed
are of Rye, a port for ships to the Continent, suggesting that van Dyck did them
casually whilst waiting for wind or tide to improve.
is great success compelled van Dyck to maintain a large workshop in London, a
studio which was to become "virtually a production line for portraits".
According to a visitor to his studio he usually only made a drawing on paper,
which was then enlarged onto canvas by an assistant; he then painted the head
himself. The clothes were left at the studio and often sent out to specialists.
In his last years these studio collaborations accounted for some decline in the
quality of work. In addition many copies untouched by him, or virtually so, were
produced by the workshop, as well as by professional copyists and later
painters; the number of paintings ascribed to him had by the 19th century become
huge, as with Rembrandt, Titian and others. However, most of his assistants and
copyists could not approach the refinement of his manner, so compared to many
masters consensus among art historians on attributions to him is usually
relatively easy to reach, and museum labelling is now mostly updated (country
house attributions may be more dubious in some cases). The relatively few names
of his assistants that are known are Dutch or Flemish; he probably preferred to
use trained Flemings, as no English equivalent training yet existed. Adriaen
Hanneman (1604–71) returned to his native Hague in 1638 to become the leading
portraitist there. Van Dyck's enormous influence of English art does not
come from a tradition handed down through his pupils; in fact it is not possible
to document a connection to his studio for any English painter of any
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