Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Portraiture of Anthony van Dyck

The Frick Collection in New York has been doing more and more elaborate paintings exhibitions and this may be the most ambitious yet.  About 100 works by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) in a show called, “Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture,” is opening on March 2.  It will be the first major show in this country devoted to his work in two decades and the Frick will be its only venue.  To achieve this they will use their small drawings & sculpture galleries downstairs, the Rotunda and adjacent gallery on the main floor.

It is not that surprising that the Frick undertook this project since van Dyck was a favorite of Henry Clay Frick and the museum boasts 3 engravings and 8 paintings by one of the world’s greatest portraitists.  Van Dyck often recorded the well-known artists of his time and here is one from the Frick Collection of around 1620 of Frans Snyders (1579-1657) best known for his hunting and market scenes and as a master of still life.

Photo by Michael Bodycomb

The curators for the exhibition are Stijn Alsteens, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Adam Eaker, Assistant Curator of Northern Baroque Paintings in the Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and formerly Guest Curator at The Frick Collection.

In Stijn Alsteens’ article titled “Portraitist’s Progress” he quotes the art critic Roger de Piles in 1708, “The greatest perfection of a portrait is extreme likeness.”  Compare that to what the American painter Gilbert Stuart had to say of portraiture, “What a business this of a portrait painter - you bring him a potato, and expect he will paint you a peach."  Clearly the portraitist must achieve both so that the sitter and viewer are satisfied.

Anthony van Dyck showed his talent from his youngest days.  At about the age of fourteen was probably a student of the already famous Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).  At the age of nineteen he became the master’s chief assistant in the artist’s large workshop.   Van Dyck went on to great success in Italy and then was called on to become painter to the court of Charles I (1600-1649) in Great Britain.  He arrived there in 1632 and was there till his death in 1641.  In that time he managed to paint 260 portraits many of which were full length.  He too must have had a very well organized studio. 

I would think that one of the most difficult achievements for an artist is to paint a self-portrait.  It brings to mind Shakespeare’s line, “to thine own self be true.” and here is his uncharacteristically small self-portrait done at the age of fourteen or fifteen from the Gemaeldegalerie in Vienna and an almost full length self-portrait done five or six years later from the Metropolitan Museum of a young man but there is no mistaking that it is the same but more mature person.



The lack of surviving detailed studies on paper for his painted portraits suggests that van Dyck mastered the technique of being able to begin by sketching his sitters’ features directly on the canvas of the finished work.  Where there are related chalk sketches the focus is pose and drapery , with the faces barely defined.  There is, however, one drawing in the show that I found particularly appealing from the Frits Lugt Collection which Lugt left to his Fondation Custodia, Paris.  It is an informal depiction of Fran├žois Langlois playing a Musette  believed to have been done in 1641, the last year of van Dyck’s life.  Langlois was an engraver, publisher and art dealer as well as an accomplished amateur musician.  Van Dyck and Langlois probably met in Italy when they both lived there some twenty years earlier.


There is a lovely little picture, an oil sketch from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh of “The Princesses Elizabeth and Ann. Daughters of Charles I” from 1637.  Anne died of Tuberculosis in 1640 and Elizabeth died in 1650.  Their mother was convinced that the latter died of a broken heart after the execution of her father.


If I may end on a personal note and thank the author Adam Eaker for his statement from the catalog in the chapter “A Taste for van Dyck”.   He acknowledges the role of the market in art collecting and art history.  In the last paragraph he writes about a self-portrait by van Dyck bought by a Los Angeles collector that was not given an export license from England and was finally bought by the National Portrait Gallery in London thanks to a public appeal.  Eaker writes, “The attempt to preserve national patrimony necessarily clashes with a global art market in which paintings by van Dyck continue to command high prices, yet both demonstrate the artist’s enduring appeal”.

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