Sir Anthony van Dyck (Tara Olivero)
Sir Anthony van Dyck, self-portrait c. 1640 (from the National Gallery)
Anthony van Dyck was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1599 to a wealthy silk-merchant. At the age of ten, he was apprenticed to Hendrik van Balen, who painted small cabinet pictures and was the dean of the Antwerp Saint Luke’s Guild, which van Dyck registered as a master in by 1618. He began working as an assistant for the more experienced Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, helping him with large commissions such as the designs for his Decius Mus tapestry series and ceiling decorations at the Church of Saint Charles Borromeo in Antwerp. Being Rubens’ assistant, however, did not restrict his own painting career; his first independent works are dated around 1615, when he would have been only 17. By 1620 his work was almost as admired as Rubens’.
Although he was also skilled at sketching and engraving, and later tried watercolor, van Dyck’s preferred medium was oil painting, and specifically figure composition and portraiture. He worked in the service of James I and the court of England around in 1620, producing mostly figure compositions, but next turned to portraiture in Italy around 1621-1627, where his portraits of aristocrats were incredibly well-received. Portraits were typically commissioned for personal reasons and were intended to cultivate a specific image of the sitter’s status and identity. Van Dyck was exalted for this ability to convey the sitter’s personality and character in his elegant portraits, and he was considered a master of color and composition. Specifically, he was talented at mixing colors to create the illusion of texture in both shadow and light. He was also well known for his flesh tones, his depiction of reflective surfaces such as armor or silk fabric, and his choice of bold tints against darker backgrounds, which seems to have been influenced by Italian art.
Major inspirations for van Dyck’s portraiture were the works of Titian (he personally owned nineteen Titian paintings and sketched many others throughout his travels around Italy) as well as Rubens’ paintings he came across in Genoa; in fact, art experts sometimes still find difficulty in attempting to differentiate the works of van Dyck with Rubens. However, the Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists notes that “van Dyck’s style was typically less energetic and more nervously sensitive than that of his supremely robust mentor, reflecting differences in character and composition (van Dyck was highly strung in temperament and comparatively slight in physique).” His portraits of aristocrats typically had a distinctive “type,” where the aristocrat was pictured as being slender, aloof, and proud. The setting and luxurious costuming of the sitter also typically contributed to a sense of grandeur. For the next 150 years, van Dyck’s portraits served as inspiration for later artists, especially Thomas Gainsborough in the later 1700s.
He spent time in the Netherlands before returning to the English court permanently. Some of his patrons throughout his life included the Archduchess Isabella, governess of the Spanish Netherlands; Frederik Hendrik, the prince of Orange; Frederick V and Elizabeth Stuart; Maria de’ Medici of France; and Charles I and Henrietta Maria of England. In 1632, he was named court painter to Charles I as well as being knighted; his glamorous portraits of Charles I and the court are typically the most well-known of van Dyck’s work. For the rest of his career (until his death in 1641) he moved between London, Antwerp, and Paris to work on various projects. In addition to portraiture, he painted landscapes, mythological compositions, and emotional religious works such as altarpieces for churches in Antwerp. Another one of his most extensive projects was called the Iconography, a series of printed engravings and etchings of aristocrats, artists, and other famous individuals of the time period; the prints were compiled into book form and sold posthumously around 1645.
Interested parties can access some of van Dyck’s paintings on his page at the National Gallery website as well as on my presentation at this link.
● Art UK