Thursday, November 30, 2017

Frozen Moments in Time - The Art of Anthony van Dyck

by Anna Belfrage

Las Meninas, D Velázquez
Say Philip IV of Spain and chances are people will visualise a series of portraits by Diego Velázquez, principally that rather impressive work of art Las Meninas. What the great Velázquez did for the Spanish Hapsburgs in the 17th century, today’s protagonist did for the court of Charles I of England, painting a series of portraits that qualify as masterpieces. His skills made him the most sought after portraitist in England and as a result Anthony van Dyck became very, very rich and just as famous.

Anthony (Well, if we’re going to be correct his birth-name was Antoon) saw the light of the day on the 22 of March in 1599. His father was a well-respected and wealthy cloth merchant in Antwerp, and Anthony was his seventh child and second son. Where Papa travelled to sell his silks and gossamer-thin linens, Mrs van Dyck remained at home to raise their children and devote herself to her embroidery. Gifted with an artist’s eye, Mrs van Dyck embroidered landscapes and figures and little Anthony was quite enthralled by the end results. Soon enough, when Mama was sewing he was drawing on whatever he could find and so impressed was his mother that she managed to convince her husband to allow little Anthony to pursue the career of an artist by apprenticing him to the Flemish artist Hendrik van Balen from the age of ten.

Etching by van Dyck
It was apparent to everyone that Anthony had talent in spades. At the age of fourteen he painted his first commissioned portrait, proudly inscribing his age as well as his name on the finished work of art. At age sixteen, he and his friend Jan Brueghel Jr. opened their own studio. By now, Anthony was making a name for himself, not only as a painter but also as a draughtsman and an excellent etcher. (Some would argue that the art of etching peaked with Anthony’s work, never again to reach similar heights of artistry)

Anthony, self-portrait 1613-14
At nineteen, he was admitted into the guild of St Luke’s in Antwerp, thereby effectively recognised as a master of painting. With this under his belt, Anthony van Dyck was hired by Peter Paul Rubens as his chief assistant, which essentially meant he had made it to the top. Rubens was the most famous Northern European artist of the time, his studio churning out a stream of high quality paintings, many of them featuring religious themes. Rubens was a leading figure within the cultural aspect of the Counter Reformation, the Catholic movement spearheaded by Spain that had as its aim to limit the “spiritual damage” caused by the Reformation.

Tiger Hunt, Peter Paul Rubens. A lot of life (and death)

Anthony van Dyck shared Rubens' Catholic heritage and thrived under Rubens' tutelage, producing not only portraits but also a number of religious paintings and a few historical works. Rubens was very fond of historical paintings, huge canvases brimming with life and figures. He was also very impressed by his young adept, telling whoever wanted to hear that van Dyck was the best young painter he had ever met. He also encouraged van Dyck to foster his obvious talent for portraiture—a talent that required not only impressive skills as a painter but also a diplomatic flair to ensure the sitter was pleased with the end result. In effect, if a portrait painter wanted commissions, he had to be willing to do the 17th century equivalent of photo shopping to flatter whoever was being depicted.

Thomas Howard by Rubens
Rubens and van Dyck parted ways in the early 1620s. Rubens urged van Dyck to go to Italy and study the Italian masters. Our Anthony was all for going to Italy, but before doing so he detoured to England where for some months he was in King James’ employ. While in England, he met the Catholic peer Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, who was something of a fanatic art collector. Born in penury due to his father’s refusal to abandon his Catholic faith, Thomas was destined to end up heavily in debt due to his collection which contained everything from antique marbles to paintings by da Vinci, Rubens and a certain Titian. Our Anthony spent hours gawking at Arundel’s Titian portraits, realising just how much he had left to learn—and how right Rubens was when he repeatedly told van Dyck to go to Italy.

Anthony returned to Flanders to prepare for his trip to Italy. While at home, he fell in love and for a while there all thoughts of furthering his career by studying in Italy went AWOL as our handsome youth pursued tender caresses and kisses. However, youthful passions tend to be ephemeral, so after some months of cow’s eyes and ardent courting our young man did depart for Italy where he was to remain for close to six years.

Elena Grimaldi by van Dyck
A much wiser (if still rather young) Anthony van Dyck returned to Antwerp in 1627. By now, he had built quite the reputation and as he was not only a skilled artist but also charming and well-spoken he could soon add the Hapsburg regent of Spanish Flanders, Archduchess Isabella, to his clients. However, remaining in Flanders came with one major hurdle for someone as ambitious as van Dyck: there was one undisputed painting master in Flanders, and his name was Rubens, not van Dyck.

Meanwhile, in England King James had departed this world and been succeeded by his son, Charles I. While this king had about as much political skill as a bull in a china shop, he did have a genuine interest for art. Early on, he began amassing an impressive collection of paintings and during van Dyck’s years in Italy he had now and then facilitated a transaction on behalf of the English king.

Feeling somewhat frustrated by always walking in Rubens’ shadow, in 1632 Anthony van Dyck decided to try his luck in England. He was welcomed with open arms by King Charles and his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. In fact, he was welcomed with open arms by more or less everyone in the English aristocracy. Once the king had decided he would only sit for one artist—van Dyck—his courtiers fell over their feet in their haste to have themselves and their families immortalised by the Dutchman.

King Charles, three aspects by A van Dyck
King Charles gave van Dyck a house and a studio at Blackfriars and was a frequent guest, together with his wife. The following years saw van Dyck churn out one portrait after the other, many of them of his royal patron and his family.

The Stuarts that gaze back at us from van Dyck’s canvases are a handsome lot, with soulful eyes and regular features. Such defects as buckteeth or excessive frailty are glossed over—van Dyck had no intention of risking his lucrative income by being too honest which of course has me wondering just how reliable van Dyck’s portraits are.

Charles I, by A van Dyck (and that horse HAS to be Spanish!) 
In his forty or so portraits of Charles I, the king is depicted riding, sitting, standing—always with a regal air that speaks of power and determination. Never is he presented as being as short and slight as he was. However, despite the potential airbrushing, the formal poses and the rich attires, the portraits pulsate with frozen life, as if at any moment the king will call for his horse, or the queen bend down to whisper something in the dwarf’s ear, or the young princes and princesses break apart from their tight group, the boys running one way, the girls another.

King Charles' children. IMO one of van Dyck's best portraits

Margaret Lemon (van Dyck)
All this painting made Anthony van Dyck rich. Very, very rich, which was fortunate as this was a man with little thought of tomorrow and a tendency to spend as lavishly as those he painted. He redecorated his house, he kept his various mistresses in style, dressed in the most expensive fabrics and in general lived life to the full. So profligate was his spending that his various friends at court became concerned and decided it was time their favourite painter settled down with a wife and got rid of his expensive ladies—especially his favourite mistress and sometime muse, Margaret Lemon, who according to malicious gossip had the temperament of an aggravated bear.

Mary, Lady van Dyck (van Dyck)
The king hoped that by ensuring van Dyck married an Englishwoman the artist would remain forever in England which is why he suggested van Dyck should marry a Mary Ruthvens, former lady-in-waiting to Henrietta Maria. Didn’t really work out as planned. Van Dyck spent months away from England both before and after his wedding, sometimes in Flanders, sometimes in France, where he tried (with little success) to win commissions from the French court.

To the left, Titian's portrait of Charles V
To the right, van Dyck's portrait of James Stuart.
Titian's influence is evident...

Anthony van Dyck returned to England for the last time in 1640. By then, the political unrest that was to explode into the English civil war was already evident, and the king had other things on his mind than being preserved in oils. Where before Anthony had had more commissions than he could cope with, now it was rather the reverse. It got to him, and the last months of his life were plagued not only by ill health but also by depression.

In December of 1641, Anthony van Dyck died at the age of forty-two. Other than his widow and two little girls he left behind an impressive collection of portraits, paintings that would set the standard for English portraiture for the coming century or so. Compared to Velázquez, van Dyck’s work can come across as bland, the little imperfections that give character toned down. But his undeniable skill with brush and pigments have given us vibrant snapshots of a world since lost, a time when gallants proudly wore lace and satin, long flowing hair and extravagant clothes. Young lions who would, to a large extent, lose both lace, ribbons, silk and life in the devastating English Civil War.

All pictures in public domain and/or licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons


Had Anna Belfrage been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Edmund of Woodstock appears quite frequently. The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016, and the third, Under the Approaching Dark, was published in April 2017.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex(andra) and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him. The ninth book, There is Always a Tomorrow, was published in November 2017.


  1. This was a wonderful post, wonderfully written! It really piqued my interest. I didn't realize that Van Dyke spent so much of his painting life in England, always assuming that because he was Dutch, he resided in the Netherlands.

  2. Great article! I never realized he died so young. I love Rubens and sometimes I can't tell their paintings apart, though I think Van Dyck wins the portraiture contest.

    1. I agree re the few historical paintings by van Dyck that have survived - they are clearly inspired by Rubens. Otherwise, I do think they are rather different painters, Rubens being somewhat more bombastic.


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