Page 16 - Finding Van Dyck

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Aside from his superb technical skill, what really makes
Van Dyck’s work stand out from that of his contemporaries
(especially those in England) is his ability to convey character,
or at least a human presence. Van Dyck’s portraits give
credence to Kenneth Clark’s declaration, in his epic television
, that ‘the faces which look out at us from
the past are the surest indication we have of the meaning of
an epoch.’ Such a statement is of course subjective, but few
can doubt that in Van Dyck’s English portraiture it is possible
to see glimpses of the royal and aristocratic detachment, even
arrogance, that preceded the Civil War. If Clark is right, then a
brief assessment of Van Dyck’s life at around the time Cat.1 was
painted may help to explain that picture’s undoubted intensity.
The self-portrait is dated by most scholars to about 1640–1
and so was finished shortly before Van Dyck’s death at the age
of 42. It is painted on an intimate scale, and as we have seen is
the most self-consciously artistic of his surviving self-portraits.
Devoid of the sense of self-promotion evident in many of Van
Dyck’s other self-portraits, it is instead almost unsettlingly
direct, and, rather like his first self-portrait [Gemäldegalerie
der Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna], displays a hint
of uncertainty and the famous restlessness that came to
dominate his career. A faint air of melancholy adds poignancy;
it was painted amidst the origins of the Civil War shortly to
erupt in London, prompting Van Dyck to look abroad for fresh
commercial opportunities, all the while plagued by the ill health
that would shortly cause his death.
The last two years of Van Dyck’s life must have been at times
painful and bewildering, as the world with which he was familiar,
and which he had done so much to portray, disintegrated
around him. In 1640 Charles I was forced to recall Parliament.
The new House of Commons, frustrated by eleven years of
non-representation, immediately set about passing a series of
laws attempting to curtail the King’s prerogative powers. MPs
also targeted Charles’ closest supporters, impeaching one of
Van Dyck’s most prominent patrons, Thomas Wentworth, Earl
of Strafford. It was clear that the Civil War was about to begin,
and the fractious political environment cannot have helped
Van Dyck’s failing health, the first clues of which can be found
in his visits from August 1639 to Bath, then the recuperative
capital of England.
It was hardly surprising that Van Dyck should begin to think of
leaving England, and once again establishing himself on the
continent. Another catalyst for his decision was almost certainly
the death of Rubens in May 1640. Despite the fact that Van
Dyck had married for the first time (to Mary Ruthven in February
1640) by October that year he had already travelled to Antwerp
and Brussels, doubtless hoping to be established as Rubens’
successor. True to his increasingly erratic temperament, he
turned down a commission to complete a set of four paintings
left unfinished by Rubens, doing so in such a way that the
Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand questioned his sanity, and called
him ‘a complete idiot’ [‘un loco rematado’].
He did, though,
secure a lucrative commission of 2200 guilders from the Guild
of the Young Crossbowmen for a new altarpiece in Antwerp
cathedral. By January 1641, however, Van Dyck was in Paris,
possibly seeking a commission to decorate the Long Gallery
in the Louvre. Then, ill health again forced Van Dyck to return
to London. He only just witnessed the birth of his daughter,
Justiniana, and died the same day she was baptised. He was
buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, with the motto; ‘
Antony Van Dyck
– Qui, dum viveret, multis immortalitatem donaverat vitam
or, ‘Antony Van Dyck – Who, while he lived, gave to many
immortal life.’
It is perhaps impossible to say objectively whether this last
self-portrait captures a sense of all the challenges Van Dyck
faced at the time it was painted. But it is possible to draw
a contrast with the bravura optimism of his earlier English
Self-Portrait with a Sunflower
(fig.5). Painted in c.1633 shortly
after Van Dyck arrived in England at the request of Charles I,
the earlier self-portrait undoubtedly shows a more confident
and extroverted man, one able to converse uninhibited with
his aristocratic patrons (so much so that they on occasion
addressed him as ‘passionately your humble servant’).
Van Dyck proudly holds a gold medal and chain, probably
that worth £110 given to him by Charles in April 1633 and
doubtless just one of the inducements necessary to lure the
artist to England – then amongst Europe’s artistic backwaters
– and keep him here. Perhaps the other inducements – a
knighthood, a pension of £200 a year, a house and large
studio in Blackfriars (by the river, with a special landing dock
for the King), a grace and favour residence in Eltham Palace,
and the title of ‘principalle Paynter in Ordinarie to their
Image not available due to copyright
Fig.5: Van Dyck,
, c.1633, Private Collection. A more flamboyant
and confident image than Van Dyck’s final self-portrait.
10 Barnes
et al
., p.11.
11 Robin Blake,
Anthony Van Dyck – A Life
, (London, 1999), p.340.
12 Ibid, p. 355. The monument was erected by Charles I.
13 As the morally stiff William, Earl of Newcastle addressed Van Dyck in
correspondence, February 1636/7. For the full letter see Historical Manuscripts
The Manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Portland, preserved at
Welbeck Abbey
, 10 Vols, (HMSO, London, 1891–1931), Vol. II, p.131.