Van Dyck: ‘The Great Power of Execution’

Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture

an exhibition at the Frick Collection, New York City, March 2–June 5, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition by Stijn Alsteens and Adam Eaker
The Frick Collection/ Yale University Press, 307 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)
Anthony Van Dyck: Mary, Lady Van Dyke, née Ruthven, circa 1640
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Anthony Van Dyck: Mary, Lady Van Dyke, née Ruthven, circa 1640

The last words of the dying painter Thomas Gainsborough in 1788—“We are all going to Heaven, and Vandyke is of the party”—serve as a reminder of the enduring presence of Anthony Van Dyck in the world of English portraiture during the centuries after his death. A Flemish protégé of Rubens, born in 1599, he had precocious success in Antwerp before making the great and necessary trip to Italy, where he paid particular attention to Venetian art, especially that of Titian. He made his base in Genoa, where, over a century later, in 1780, a guidebook estimated that there were still visible, in the palaces and churches of the city, no fewer than ninety-nine paintings by Van Dyck, of which seventy-two were portraits.

Antwerp bore him, Genoa raised him to his preeminence as a portraitist of the nobility, but it was in England, at the court of Charles I, that he achieved the most extraordinary monopoly on the imagination of posterity. For it is impossible to think of Charles and his wife Henrietta Maria, and the great figures of his court, without seeing them as Van Dyck portrayed them. And this portrayal has an unmistakable tinge of advocacy. It was hard for those born after to look on Charles’s noble features without thinking of his beheading as a form of martyrdom:

As I was going past Charing Cross
I saw a black man upon a black horse.
They told me it was Charles the First.
My God, I thought my heart would burst.

The anonymous nursery rhyme’s response to Hubert le Sueur’s bronze equestrian statue of 1633 (still on the south side of Trafalgar Square, where the king looks down Whitehall toward the place of his execution) has sometimes been taken to be a satire. But it is entirely plausible as a record of genuine, abiding shock at the killing of the king. In the same spirit, Van Dyck’s images of Charles were copied endlessly. They turn up in cottages and in stately homes. The huge equestrian portrait depicting the king with his riding master, M. de St. Antoine, which is in the Royal Collection, became familiar recently to millions of television watchers: a copy hangs above the breakfast table in Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle in real life). But they hang in numerous other great houses as well.

This success in promulgating his own image (like a Roman emperor, or like the French Sun King) belonged not only to Charles but also to his right-hand man, whom Charles was forced to betray: Thomas Wentworth, First Earl of Strafford. Beheaded in 1641, the year of Van Dyck’s own premature death, Wentworth seems to turn a particularly piercing gaze at us, a look…

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