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.
Antoon Van Dyck (his Flemish name) was born to prosperous parents in Antwerp. His talent was evident very early, and he was studying painting with Hendrick Van Balen by 1609, and became an independent painter around 1615, setting up a workshop with his even younger friend Jan Brueghel the Younger. By the age of fifteen he was already a highly accomplished artist, as his Self-portrait, 1613–14, shows. He was admitted to the Antwerp painters’ Guild of Saint Luke as a free master by February 1618. Within a few years he was to be the chief assistant to the dominant master of Antwerp, and the whole of Northern Europe, Peter Paul Rubens, who made much use of sub-contracted artists as well as his own large workshop. His influence on the young artist was immense; Rubens referred to the nineteen-year-old Van Dyck as “the best of my pupils”. The origins and exact nature of their relationship are unclear; it has been speculated that Van Dyck was a pupil of Rubens from about 1613, as even his early work shows little trace of Van Balen’s style, but there is no clear evidence for this. At the same time the dominance of Rubens in the small and declining city of Antwerp probably explains why, despite his periodic returns to the city, Van Dyck spent most of his career abroad. In 1620, in Rubens’s contract for the major commission for the ceiling of the Jesuit church at Antwerp (now destroyed), Van Dyck is specified as one of the “discipelen” who was to execute the paintings to Rubens’ designs.
In 1620, at the instigation of the Duke of Buckingham, Van Dyck went to England for the first time where he worked for King James I & VI, receiving £100. It was in London in the collection of Earl of Arundel that he first saw the work of Titian, whose use of colour and subtle modeling of form would prove transformational, offering a new stylistic language that would enrich the compositional lessons learned from Rubens.
After about four months he returned to Flanders, but moved on in late 1621 to Italy, where he remained for 6 years, studying the Italian masters and beginning his career as a successful portraitist. He was already presenting himself as a figure of consequence, annoying the rather bohemian Northern artist’s colony in Rome. He was mostly based in Genoa, although he also travelled extensively to other cities, and stayed for some time in Palermo in Sicily. For the Genoese aristocracy, then in a final flush of prosperity, he developed a full-length portrait style, drawing on Veronese and Titian as well as Rubens’ style from his own period in Genoa, where extremely tall but graceful figures look down on the viewer with great hauteur. In 1627, he went back to Antwerp where he remained for five years, painting more affable portraits which still made his Flemish patrons look as stylish as possible. A life-size group portrait of twenty-four City Councillors of Brussels he painted for the council-chamber was destroyed in 1695. He was evidently very charming to his patrons, and, like Rubens, well able to mix in aristocratic and court circles, which added to his ability to obtain commissions. By 1630 he was described as the court painter of the Habsburg Governor of Flanders, the Archduchess Isabella. In this period he also produced many religious works, including large altarpieces, and began his printmaking.
King Charles I was the most passionate and generous collector of art among the British monarchs, and saw art as a way of promoting his grandiose view of the monarchy. In 1628 he bought the fabulous collection that the Gonzagas of Mantua were forced to dispose of, and he had been trying since his accession in 1625 to bring leading foreign painters to England. In 1626 he was able to persuade Orazio Gentileschi to settle in England, later to be joined by his daughter Artemesia and some of his sons. Rubens was an especial target, who eventually came on a diplomatic mission, which included painting, in 1630, and later supplied more paintings from Antwerp. He was very well treated during his nine month visit, during which he was knighted. Charles’ court portraitist, Daniel Mytens, was a somewhat pedestrian Fleming. Charles was extremely short (less than five feet tall) and presented challenges to a portraitist.
Van Dyck had remained in touch with the English court, and had helped King Charles’ agents in their search for pictures. He had also sent back some of his own works, including a portrait (1623) of himself with Endymion Porter, one of Charles’s agents, a mythology (Rinaldo and Armida, 1629, now in the Baltimore Museum of Art), and a religious work for the Queen. He had also painted Charles’s sister, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia in the Hague in 1632. In April that year, Van Dyck returned to London, and was taken under the wing of the court immediately, being knighted in July and at the same time receiving a pension of £200 per year, in the grant of which he was described as principalle Paynter in ordinary to their majesties. He was well paid for paintings in addition to this, at least in theory, as King Charles did not actually pay over his pension for five years, and reduced the price of many paintings. He was provided with a house on the river at Blackfriars, then just outside the City and hence avoiding the monopoly of the Painters Guild. A suite of rooms in Eltham Palace, no longer used by the Royal family, was also provided as a country retreat. His Blackfriars studio was frequently visited by the King and Queen (later a special causeway was built to ease their access), who hardly sat for another painter whilst Van Dyck lived.
He was an immediate success in England, rapidly painting a large number of portraits of the King and Queen Henrietta Maria, as well as their children. Many portraits were done in several versions, to be sent as diplomatic gifts or given to supporters of the increasingly embattled king. Altogether Van Dyck has been estimated to have painted forty portraits of King Charles himself, as well as about thirty of the Queen, nine of Earl of Strafford and multiple ones of other courtiers. He painted many of the court, and also himself and his mistress, Margaret Lemon. In England he developed a version of his style which combined a relaxed elegance and ease with an understated authority in his subjects which was to dominate English portrait-painting to the end of the 18th century. Many of these portraits have a lush landscape background. His portraits of Charles on horseback updated the grandeur of Titian’s Emperor Charles V, but even more effective and original is his portrait of Charles dismounted in the Louvre. Although his portraits have created the classic idea of “Cavalier” style and dress, in fact a majority of his most important patrons in the nobility, such as Lord Wharton and the Earls of Bedford, Northumberland and Pembroke, took the Parliamentarian side in the English Civil War that broke out soon after his death.
Van Dyck became a “denizen”, effectively a citizen, in 1638 and married Mary, the daughter of Lord Ruthven and a Lady in waiting to the Queen, in 1639-40; this may have been instigated by the King in an attempt to keep him in England. He had spent most of 1634 in Antwerp, returning the following year, and in 1640-41, as the Civil War loomed, spent several months in Flanders and France. In 1640 he accompanied prince John Casimir of Poland after he was freed from French imprisonment; he also painted the prince’s portrait. He left again in the summer of 1641, but fell seriously ill in Paris and returned hurriedly to London, where he died soon after in his house at Blackfriars. His widow later married Sir Richard Pryse, 1st Baronet of Gogerddan. Van Dyck left a daughter each by his wife and mistress, the first only ten days old. Both were provided for, and both ended up living in Flanders.
He was buried in Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, where the king erected a monument in his memory: Anthony returned to England, and shortly afterwards he died in London, piously rendering his spirit to God as a good Catholic, in the year 1641. He was buried in St. Paul’s, to the sadness of the king and court and the universal grief of lovers of painting. For all the riches he had acquired, Anthony Van Dyck left little property, having spent everything on living magnificently, more like a prince than a painter.
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 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. 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. 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.
Probably during his period in Antwerp after his return from Italy, Van Dyck began his Iconography, eventually a very large series of prints with half-length portraits of eminent contemporaries. Van Dyck produced drawings, and for eighteen of the portraits he himself etched with great brilliance the heads and the main outlines of the figure, for an engraver to work up: “Portrait etching had scarcely had an existence before his time, and in his work it suddenly appears at the highest point ever reached in the art”.
However for most of the series he left the whole printmaking work to specialists, who mostly engraved everything after his drawings. His own etched plates appear not to have been published commercially until after his death, and early states are very rare. Most of his plates were printed after only his work had been done; some exist in further states after engraving had been added, sometimes obscuring his etching. He continued to add to the series until at least his departure for England, and presumably added Inigo Jones whilst in London.
The series was a great success, but was his only venture into printmaking; portraiture probably paid better, and he was constantly in demand. At his death there were eighty plates by others, of which fifty-two were of artists, as well as his own eighteen. The plates were bought by a publisher; with the plates reworked periodically as they wore out they continued to be printed for centuries, and the series added to, so that it reached over two hundred portraits by the late 18th century. In 1851 the plates were bought by the Calcographie du Louvre.
The Iconography was highly influential as a commercial model for reproductive printmaking; now forgotten series of portrait prints were enormously popular until the advent of photography. Van Dyck’s brilliant etching style, which depended on open lines and dots, was in marked contrast to that of the other great portraitist in prints of the period, Rembrandt, and had little influence until the 19th century, when it had a great influence on artists such as Whistler in the last major phase of portrait etching.
His 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 significance.
Here you can see the artist's works that are part of the collection.