Van Dyck and English Portraiture
by Marthe Lisson
The portraits of Charles I and his court, sumptuously enwrapped in luxuriously shining fabrics,
have become emblematic of English aristocracy. However, the man behind the easel, who left
such profound traces on English portraiture, was Flemish and is the subject of a
new monograph by Adam Eaker.
In his Anecdotes of Painting in England, published in 1762, Horace Walpole confessed that his native country ‘has very rarely given birth to a genius in [painting]. Flanders and Holland have sent us the greatest men that we can boast.’1
This is neither exaggerated nor a lack of English national consciousness; the great painters known to Walpole had come from across the Channel. Hans Holbein the Younger, King’s Painter to Henry VIII: Swiss-German. Nicholas Hilliard, painter of portrait miniatures and official limner (miniature painter) to Elizabeth I: Flemish. Peter Lely, Principal Painter to Charles II: Dutch. So was his pupil William (or Willem for that matter) Wissing, whose main competitor, Godfrey Kneller, was German, born Gottfried Kniller. And then there was Anthony van Dyck, court painter to Charles I and the English aristocracy. Born Antoon van Dyck in Antwerp in 1599, this Flemish painter is the subject of Adam Eaker’s new book Van Dyck and the Making of English Portraiture.
Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Mary
(April-August 1632), Anthony van Dyck, Royal Collection
Generally accepted and generally absent
Art historians struggle with Van Dyck to this day. On the one hand, it is generally accepted that Van Dyck elevated painting into the realms of fine art in England, and that he created a template for aristocratic portraiture, introducing ‘a sophistication and panache to his portraits that makes everything else painted in England prior to his arrival look provincial’. 2
Yet on the other hand, ever so often he is ignored for exactly that voluptuousness – especially on himself. He is overlooked for being a vain, effeminate, luxury-loving painter, who held court in his studio and dedicated his career to the belittled business of portraiture. In Tate Britain’s 2020 exhibition ‘British Baroque: Power and Illusion’, not a single work by Van Dyck hung on the walls. This omission was due to the decision to begin English Baroque after the Restoration in 1660, not before. By that time, poor Van Dyck was resting in the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Adam Eaker, associate curator in the Department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, naturally starts his account in the 1630s and takes it into the late 18th century. The Making of English Portraiture is as much about the influence Van Dyck had on English painting, and a generation of (surprisingly female) painters that followed him, as it is about the centrality of portraiture and portrait sitting in his practice, literally the process of making. Eaker is not trying to restore Van Dyck’s image, but rather focuses on how,
[t]hrough his public persona as a courtier, figure of fashion, and object of erotic fascination, Van Dyck transformed the professional identities available to English artists, and a self-consciously Van Dyckian lineage of painters can be traced from his lifetime to the end of the eighteenth century and beyond.3
A new approach to portraiture
Van Dyck learned in the workshop of Peter Paul Rubens. At the time, being an artiste meant to excel in the art of history paintings, biblical and mythological subject matters; portraiture was merely considered the copying of nature. Why then, puzzlingly, did Van Dyck decide to become a portraitist? According to Giovanni Pietro Bellori, in his 1672 Vite de’ Pittori, Scultori et Architetti Moderni (Lives of the Artists), Van Dyck had no choice, saying that Rubens had intentionally left commissions for portraits to his pupil Van Dyck, so that he himself could focus on and deny Van Dyck access to history paintings.4 Or was Van Dyck, as many art historians have argued, motivated by commercialism? Eaker does not agree; he thinks that the decision to focus on portraits was a self-conscious one and in
self-aware contradistinction to Rubens. He [Van Dyck] saw portraits and portrait sittings as an arena for self-assertion. In doing so, he created a paradigm
of artistic subjectivity that generations of painters would follow.5
After a first stint in England in 1621 to work for James I, Van Dyck spent the rest of the decade in Italy. He then briefly returned to Antwerp before settling in England in 1632 as court painter to Charles I. Van Dyck turned portrait sitting into widely talked about spectacles, hosting his patrons in his own ‘princely establishment: in other words, the studio.’6 Sittings became events of consumption, entertainment and, for Van Dyck, opportunities to show off his own lordly life and his mastering of the artistic act of creation. ‘Van Dyckian practice can be understood to enrich the finished work through the experience of the sitting, the charisma of the artist, and the virtuosity of visible brushwork,’ Eaker writes.7 Whereas for Rubens the portrait sitting meant an intrusion into the studio, a conflict of hierarchies and ambitions between the artist and the sitter, Van Dyck met his aristocratic sitters seemingly on eye level. He certainly dressed like an aristocrat, turning himself ‘into a kind of living portrait’ which earned him much disdain from his Flemish colleagues during his time in Italy. Furthermore, ‘Van Dyck’s breach with Rubens consisted in opening up his art to the sitter’s active participation.’8 That in turn increased his works’ monetary value.
Henrietta Maria and the dwarf, Sir Jeffrey Hudson (1633), Anthony van Dyck, National Gallery of Art
A legacy in London
Sir Anthony van Dyck died in 1641 and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. His tomb and mortal remains were later destroyed in the Great Fire of London. His paintings have remained and nearly 400 years after his death, London is still a great starting point to explore his work in the flesh. Art UK lists 146 paintings by (but also after/in the style of) Van Dyck across the capital in 28 different venues. A condensed eleven are on display in the National Gallery (a total of sixteen paintings are in the collection) in Room 21, adjacent to a room full of Rubens. The number of English painting geniuses did not seriously increase in the centuries after Horace Walpole’s account and walking through the National Gallery makes this plainly visible. Here, Van Dyck is surrounded by fellow Flemish and Dutch painters. He himself remained Flemish throughout his life, but was granted denizenship in 1638. That, and his legacy on British art, would be good reasons to place him closer to the British portraitists at the very opposite end of the Gallery. It would help visitors too. The distance makes it difficult to trace his influence in other artists’ works, unless you manage to hold on to your impressions while walking through the Italian Renaissance. But it is worth a try – good luck!
Van Dyck and the Making of English Portraiture by Adam Eaker (Paul Mellon Centre, Yale University Press) was launched at the IAS on 15 November 2022. An introduction was given by Allison Stielau (UCL, History of Art), responses were coming from Esther Chadwick (Courtauld Institute of Art), Karen Hearn (UCL, English) and Joanna Woodall (Courtauld Institute of Art).
MARTHE LISSON is the Editor of Think Pieces.
Copy-editing and standfirst by NICHOLAS LACKENBY
Proofreading by ANNA STELLE
Lead Image: Self-portrait (after 1633), Anthony van Dyck, private collection