Antoon Van Dyck was born on March 21, 1599 in Antwerp, which was at the time then the main port of the Spanish Netherlands, basically modern Belgium. He was to become one of the most succesful portrait painters of the day and awarded a kighthood by England's Charles I. His brilliant portraits of the Cavalier nobility, resplendent
in satin and lace stand to day as our major window into the world of Stuart England. These paintings were also to inspire the elaborate Little Lord Fauntleroy suits of the late 19th Century. Interestingly, Van Dyck's
grandfather had made the family fortune by selling luxurious fabrics, velvet, satin, and lace.
Antoon was a member of a well-to-do family. He was named after his paternal grandfather, who had himself once been a Master in Antwerp painter's guild. But, in a city where there were more painters than bakers,
Van Dyck the Elder had found it impossible to make his art pay. So he turned to commerce, becoming a successful merchant in luxury textiles--velvet, satin, and silk.
His eldest son, Frans, was Antoon's father. He expanded the family business but ultimately overreached himself, falling into financial 'disgrace' at the end of his life. Antoon does not appear to have gotten along well with his father.
Antoon as a boy lived in two different homes in the center of Antwerp. As a result he and his sisters who were cloest to him in age would have been exposed to the vibrant life of a lively city. The city streets were bustling with activity from carnival processions to passion plays, weddings, street vendors, markets, and much more. The docks and canals were another fascinating place, although war had robbed the city of its former affluence and vessel traffic. Surely he must have begun sketching this activity at an early age. I have few details about his boyhood and how he was dressed a boy. He
seems to have demonstrated an interest in drawing at an early age.
His gifts as an artist manifested themselves early in his life. The young Van Dyck has been called "the Mozart of painting".
This is an exaggeration, although there is no doubt he was an
exceptionally gifted teenage draughtsmen and painter.
Van Dyck was lucky, also, in his mother Maria. Born Maria Cuypers, she
encouraged his talent from an early age and had close family
ties with many of the most distinguished Antwerp artists,
including the Brueghel and de Wael dynasties. Her sudden
death, 3 weeks after Antoon celebrated his 7th birthday,
had a profound effect on her son, setting a seal on his character
for the rest of his life. When she died, Antoon's father did not remarry.
Antoon in 1609, at the age of 10, the boy signed on as a 'leerjonger' or
apprentice at the studio of Hendrick Van Balen, the Dean of the
Antwerp painters. He was exceptionally precocious. Van Dyck's time
with Van Balen was very a brief. It was Rubens, the other great Flemish
painter of the day, that Van Dyck wanted to work with. As soon as a
vacancy occurred (and almost certainly by 1613 or 1614), Van Dyck
transferred to the
workshop of Peter Paul Rubens, who had recently re-settled in
Rubens was a man of towering importance in Euroopean art. As the world's most famous, wealthy, influential and versatile painter his influence over the art of his age would find no parallel until the career of Picasso. Van Dyck, who seems to have got along badly with his own father, adopted Rubens as a surrogate parent. Rubens returned the compliment, finding in his talented new pupil a phenomenally quick and willing disciple. Van Dyck who was becoming a recognized artist, worked with Rubens as a junior colleague rather than a mere aprentice. In imitation of Rubens's Self-Portrait (now in the Galleria Uffizi) Van Dyck painted an ultra-confident Self-Portrait of his own at the age of 14 or 15. This is one of the earliest of his paintings to have survived. Van Dyck's talent and skill was now developing so
quickly that, by the age of 17, he stood unchallenged as Rubens's chief assistant.
Van Dyck worked for the Master on important commissions such as the "Decius Mus Cycle" of tapestry cartoons (cartoons mean sketches for the weavers) commissioned in 1616) and the 33 ceiling paintings for Antwerp's striking new Jesuit Church, which was dedicated in 1621. But at the same time Van Dyck was establishing his own practice with portraits and religious pictures including his first masterpieces such as "The Taking of Christ", "The Crowning With Thorns" and the series on St Jerome.
Van Dyck opened his own studio in Antwerp at
the age of 16 and became a master of the city's artist's guild 2 years
later. Between 1618 and 1620 he collaborated with Peter Paul Rubens,
working with him as a younger colleague rather than as a
student. He was later to attain a reputation second only to Rubens as the greatest painter in mid-17th-century Europe.
Van Dyck was born in Antwerp. His career, however is associated with three countries, England, Belgium (then the Spanish Netherlands), and England.
Van Dyck by the age of 21 began to detach himself from Rubens. In 1620
Van Dyck made his first trip to England, where he spent a few months in the service of James I
(1566-1625). He was granted a royal pension and took up a post at the
court of King James VI & I in
London. It was at this time, he painted his great portrait of the
Earl of Arundel and the exceptionally interesting Continence of Scipio.
Van Dyck's name is inextricably associated with the history of English
painting. With royal permission he left England in
1621 to study in Italy.
Van Dyck, who was working in London under royal patronage, obtained permission to travel to Italy so that he could study the work of the great masters and refine his craft. Van Dyck in 1621 to traveled to Italy from London to persue his studies. He was officially only in Italy to study, but he in fact moved to Italy. He set up his residence in Genoa which he used as a base to travel throughout Italy. He traveled to Rome, Florence, Bologna, Venice, Turin, and Palermo. Van Dyck's time in Italy had a profound impact on his portraits. Van Dyck traveled extensively throughout Italy, primarilt to view nd study the work of the great masters. It was here that he saw the warm, luminous colors of the Mediterranean and was inspired by the great Reniassance masters. He was paricularly struck by the work of Titian, Veronese, Giorgione, the younger Rubens and Guido Reni. He carried a sketchbook with him to record aspects of these paintings that most impressed him. Van Dyck to support himself while in Italy began doing portrits, especially in Genoa. He son acquired a reputation amongst other artists in the city who began calling him il pittore cavalieresco. Art historians differ somewhat on how to interpret this apelage. Van Dyck is noted for the large numbers of Baroque portraits he made of the Genoese aristocracy and an occassionaly English visitor. He was especially active in Genoa during 1625-27. These portraits establish the image of the Renaissance nobleman that is today fixed in the popular mind. The men look nobel in mind and body. We suspect that Van Dyck altered the looks somewhat to etch brave features and athletic builds. Most of Van Dyk's Genoese portraits are adults. He also painted, however, several wonderful portraits of children. Many of the Van Dyck portaits we have found come from his time in Italy. One of the best known is a portrait today refered to as the Balbi children.
The years 1628-32 were spent mainly at Antwerp. Returning wealthy and renowned to his native town, Van Dyck
established himself as a master with a large studio and was to work there, now at his creative peak, for the next 4 years. He produced beautiful narrative paintings (two of the most stunning are Rinaldo and Armida and The Arrest of Samson) as well as a series of altarpieces and the usual plethora of portraits. He also now accepted his first official post, the relatively undemanding sinecure of court painter to Isabella, the austere Archduchess of the Southern Netherlands. Meanwhile his wealth increased in proportion to his growing fame.
There is a noticeable increase in the erotic content of Van Dyck's painting at this time, which is partly the legacy of Italy and partly attributable to a new relationship. The unknown model for Delilah in The Arrest of Samson has a good claim to be remembered as Van Dyck's inspiration, and perhaps his mistress, during the late 1620s. She is also represented most sensually in Venus at the Forge of Vulcan (Louvre, Paris) and Thetis at the Forge of Vulcan (Kuntshistorische Museum, Vienna) and is probably the model for Armida in the monumental Rinaldo and Armida (Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland).
At the same time Van Dyck had become a very busy religious
artist fulfilling numerous commissions for altarpieces, with
particular emphasis on the Crucifixion. He also began to compile
a unique enterprise known as The Iconography, a series of
portrait prints of artists, collectors and politicians, many of whom
happened also to be Van Dyck's friends. Eventually (but not until
after his death) a hundred portraits were published.
Van Dyck accepted Charles I's invitation in 1632 to return to
London as court painter and so began one of the most
remarkable of all artist-client partnerships. It is from this period that
most English and Americans draw our modern idea of Van Dyck, who was
now known as Sir Anthony, having been awarded a knighthood in 1633.
He became the leading image-maker of the
satin-and-lace clad cavaliers and ladies of the Caroline court.
Great portraits of this period include King Charles on
Horseback, Archbishop Laud, Sir John Suckling, and The
Countess of Southampton.
England was ruled throughout the 1630s by the Charles II without
Parliament. Although there was plenty of trouble being stored up
for the future, it seemed a sunny period in which the privileged
lived well, contentedly and at peace with the world. It was this
class amongst whom Van Dyck lived and worked. He worked
hard, producing an enormous output of portraits in a style -
whether we are talking about composition, colours or brushwork
- which was clearly distinguishable from what had gone before.
That said, there is a clear continuity between, for example, the
Ialian masterpiece Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo. and Queen
Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson.
Although much of van Dyck's work for the King had something of the
air of propganda image-building and about it, he was also capable of keen
penetration and expression of character. His oval
double portrait, “The Artist with Sir Endymion Porter” (c.1635, Prado,
Madrid) reveals two worldly men, the painter and his patron, of
sensitivity and intelligence.
But Van Dyck was busier than he had ever been and he worked
with a number of studio assistants, developing a system to
speed up the production of society portraits. Quality was in some
cases sacrificed, but in others - and Van Dyck still frequently felt
driven to produce his best work - the fast brushwork and thin
paint surface were used to expressive effect in portraying the
bright, brittle reality of the Caroline court.
Van Dyck during these years was occupied almost entirely
with portraits. Perhaps the strongest evidence of his power as a portraitist is the fact that today we
see Charles I and his court through van Dyck's eyes. It is customary to accuse van Dyck of
invariably flattering his sitters, but not all his patrons would have agreed. When the Countess of
Sussex saw the portrait (now lost) van Dyck painted of her she felt "very ill-favourede" and
"quite out of love with myself, the face is so bige and so fate that it pleases me not at all. It lokes lyke on of the windes puffinge -- but truly I think tis lyke the originale."
The crisis between king and Parliament was reaching a crisis point by the late 1630s. Van Dyck was a devout Catholic and began to feel threatened by the King's increasingly vocal puritan opposition. He went to Antwerp in an effort to separate himself from London. The Guild of Crossbowmen in Antwerp offered a considerable sum for an altarpiece on The Martyrdom of St George (1640). Although he continued for the time being to work in England, he again returned to Antwerp to show the Guild an oil sketch for the Martyrdom (now in Musée Bonnat, Bayonne) (Autumn of 1641). This is widely believed to be his last painting. On the way back to London via Calais, although ill, he made an impulsive trip to Paris hoping to secure employment from the French King. But he was now too ill even to meet King Louis XIII. After only a few days, he painfully retraced his steps to London, where he died on December 9, 1641. He was only 42 years old. He died just before England under Charles lurched into Civil War.
There are many exceptional elements to Van Dyck's success as portraitist. He excelled at painting the rich fabrics of the day, velvet, sation, silk. and complicated brocades. He was without equalmin his ability to depicr hair, even complicated hair styles. Most charcteristic of Van Dyck is the sensitivity and expresiveness with which he rendered hands. He could literally make hands speak. [Johnson, p. 330.]
If there is an enigma about Van Dyck's character, it is
complicated by a scarcity of first hand accounts of him and the
almost complete lack of letters by his hand. In the 19th century he was
often cast, disparagingly, as Rubens's brilliant
but degenerate successor - effeminate, dissolute, irresolute.
These are unwarranted slurs. As an artist he was a resolute
professional who commanded considerable respect amongst
his clients and fellow artists. He set a relentless work-rate, so
much so that you could call him a compulsive worker, a
'workaholic'. In 27 years' professional practice he turned out
full-size paintings at an average rate of between two and three
per month, not counting the preparatory sketches, studio copies
and engraved prints that were made under his direction.
There is an important psychological reason behind this. As a
man he seems to have been stand-offish, perhaps shy although
confident of his own abilities. Certain aspects of his character
were probably consequent on the early loss of his mother Maria.
From a series of hints in his self-portraits, it can be inferred that
he suffered troubling attacks of depression throughout his career
and compulsive work is one of the characteristic traits of the
depressive. Another possible indication is his strong religious
beliefs: Van Dyck was a lifelong and devout Catholic.
Nevertheless, he had a sense of humour and an obvious gift for
companionship. His circle of patrons, friends and acquaintances
is immortalised in a commercial enterprise he conceived with
the Antwerp publisher Martin van den Enden - a series of prints
for publication which came to be known as The Iconography of
Anthony Van Dyck, and which eventually comprised a hundred
Among Van Dyck's close personal friends were the two de Wael
brothers, both Antwerp painters settled in Genoa, the Abbé
Scaglia, a Piedmontese intelligence agent known in diplomatic
correspondence as "Agent XX", the genial French bookseller
and art dealer François Langlois and the eccentric English
buccaneer, scientist and philosopher Sir Kenelm Digby. It was
for Digby that he painted the delicate Lady Venetia Digby on
Nor did Van Dyck lack lovers. First there was the anonymous
model who posed so alluringly for several of his mythological
paintings during the late 1620s, including The Arrest of Samson.
Later, in England, he fell in love with Katherine, Lady Stanhope,
the Princess Mary's governess, but she was not interested.
Instead, he became the lover of the jealous courtesan, Margaret
Lemon until finally, in 1639, marrying his young wife Mary
Ruthven in 1639. Mary gave birth to their daughter Justiniana in
December 1641, a week before Van Dyck's death.
Van Dyck began his career as an assistant to Rubens. As he became established he began hiring assistants himself.
Van Dyck's influence on English portraiture has been profound and lasting: Gainsborough, in particular, revered him. Thus reverence in part explains the Blue Boy painting. Van Dyck was also an inspiration to many others until the early 20th century.
Prior to van Dyck's arrival in England, English portraiture had tended to be formal and almost
primitive in style, but he brought to it the full power of a completely articulated baroque style, and his
influence extended through the 18th century. It is clearly visible in the work of Sir Peter Lely as well
as in the portraits by Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds. When society portraiture ceased to be a major form of artistic expression. He also painted religious and mythological subjects, however, and a
surprising facet of his activity is revealed by his landscapes in
water-color (British Museum, London). His Iconography (1645) is a series
of etchings or engravings of his famous contemporaries. Van Dyck etched some of the
plates himself, and many more were engraved after his drawings and oil sketches.
Johnson, Paul. Art: A mew History (Harper Collins: New York, 2003), 777p.
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