Van Dyck: Portrait Painter Par Excellence
By Bobbie Leigh
Art critic and painter Roger de Piles said it best: “Excepting Titian only, van Dyck surpasses all the painters that went before him, or have come after him, in portraits.” That was in 1706. Still true? You can decide after seeing the phenomenal exhibition, “Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture,” at the Frick Collection through June 5. The portraits rare beauty, elegance, and expressive high style will leave you slack jawed. After strolling around the Met Breuer, the various Armory shows, and an occasional Chelsea gallery, here at last is work that will engage all your senses.
Unlike Mozart who started composing at five and wrote his first symphony at eight, art prodigies like van Dyke (1599-1641) tend to blossom a little later At ten, van Dyck was apprenticed to an Antwerp artist, Hendrick van Balen, and at 14 he was already considered a master. Peter Paul Rubens dubbed him “the best of my pupils.” He entered Rubens’s studio in his late teens and worked on major commissions.
Van Dyck’s self-portrait (above), 1614, is the painting of an angel –sweet-faced and innocent with beguiling red curls. His steady gaze turned toward a mirror (?) to study his own likeness and a thin white line – a bright focal point at his neckline — attest to his early mastery. It is not surprising that by his 30s, van Dyck after a distinguished career in Europe was knighted by Charles I, the King of England, who named him “Principal Painter.”
One of van Dyck’s most famous paintings, a celebrated full-length portrait of Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio, 1623, stands out. It explains why van Dyck is so revered and rarely equaled. The Cardinal seated in a throne-like chair is shown wearing a magnificent crimson gown with a sort of apron-like tunic of Flemish lace set against a heavily curtained background. His clothing is meticulous, sumptuous, but it is his sensitive and alert face that is so compelling. This is not a static power portrait. The Cardinal seems approachable and welcoming as he looks up from reading a letter and turns his face as if to greet a friend. Van Dyck seems to have captured the personality of the Cardinal whom a contemporary friend described as a man with “angelic morals, prudent, wise, sweet nature…” Van Dyck’s depiction of Bentivoglio became a benchmark for portraits of a prince of the Church.
During van Dyck’s English period from 1632 until his death at 42 in 1641, it would appear he painted royals and aristocrats and their families. As a successful court painter, some scholars say he painted 400 portraits during his years in England. Apparently he was not just a great painter and a great host. He aimed to show his sitters at their best and certainly in their best clothes. He was also organized, setting up a schedule seeing his clients. He even employed a team of assistants who gathered up their finery for the painter to study even before he met his subjects. And when they arrived, to keep them from becoming bored while posing, van Dyck served lavish food, music and invited a stream of visitors to keep the sitters entertained.
The Frick exhibition is huge, more than 100 works. There is much to see and study. In the lower gallery, drawings and preparatory sketches are accompanied by photographs of the finished portraits, giving you a chance to observe how the artist was more interested in quickly capturing a pose, a glance, or a long tapered finger than making detailed drawings before starting a painting. Many of these sketches and oil studies were made for a series of prints of his portraits known as the Iconographie. These are reproductions of some of the most famous crowned heads, military men, scholars and artists of his time. The publication of these prints, disseminated throughout Europe, is one of the reasons why van Dyck’s work has remained popular for more than 300 years. Another is that his portraits have an overwhelming emotional effect. They capture the spirit of the time and of the people they portray.
The Frick Collection: www.frick.org