This is Anthony Van Dyck’s last self-portrait. It is dated by most scholars to about 1640-1 and therefore done during his final year in England, where he spent more time as an independent artist than anywhere else. It is painted on an intimate scale with great rapidity, and is perhaps the least formal and most self-consciously artistic of his surviving self-portraits. Although the hand and brush at the end of Van Dyck’s raised arm are unseen, this is the only self-portrait that comes close to showing him in the act of painting. Probably for that reason, the picture became something of an icon amongst Van Dyck’s successors in England; it was immediately emulated by the likes of Samuel Cooper and William Dobson in their own self-portraits, and later was owned, and apparently copied by, Sir Peter Lely, Van Dyck’s spiritual successor as painter to the royal court in England. Until recently, the picture had remained in the possession of the...
This is Anthony Van Dyck’s last self-portrait. It is dated by most scholars to about 1640-1 and therefore done during his final year in England, where he spent more time as an independent artist than anywhere else. It is painted on an intimate scale with great rapidity, and is perhaps the least formal and most self-consciously artistic of his surviving self-portraits. Although the hand and brush at the end of Van Dyck’s raised arm are unseen, this is the only self-portrait that comes close to showing him in the act of painting. Probably for that reason, the picture became something of an icon amongst Van Dyck’s successors in England; it was immediately emulated by the likes of Samuel Cooper and William Dobson in their own self-portraits, and later was owned, and apparently copied by, Sir Peter Lely, Van Dyck’s spiritual successor as painter to the royal court in England. Until recently, the picture had remained in the possession of the same family for almost three hundred years. It is thought to be in its original frame.
Self-portraits represent a unique insight into an artist’s technique, character and history. Without the pressures of time or a patron’s desires, the painter can focus directly on his talent, and, ignoring the constraints of fashion or etiquette, produce the clearest example of his skill possible. As a result, self-portraits tend to stand out amongst a painter’s oeuvre as their best works. Michael Dahl’s and Sir Peter Lely’s self-portraits, to take two comparable early English examples, stand head and shoulders above their regular portrait commissions. Furthermore, self-portraits are perhaps the only occasion when a viewer can be certain that character and likeness are portrayed with equal honesty and clarity. No greater proof of this exists than in Rembrandt’s self-portraits, where an autobiographical summation of his life can be plotted from bright youth, to successful middle age, and finally through to the despair of retirement.
Self-portraits can reasonably be divided into ‘public’ or ‘private’ examples. The former are typified by works in which the artist consciously shows off his skill, which can be said of most Van Dyck self-portraits, particularly his early three-quarter length in the Hermitage, and, to a lesser extent, the Self-Portrait with Endymion Porter in the Prado. Probably the most appealing self-portraits, however, are those which are essentially private affairs, like the present example, which often appear to be left unfinished as if designed merely to please the painter. Devoid of the sense of self-promotion evident in Van Dyck’s other self-portraits, his last is instead poignantly direct, and, rather like his first self-portrait [National Gallery of Art, Washington], displays a hint of uncertainty and the famous restlessness that came to dominate his career. In this final self-portrait, however, a faint air of melancholy gives the picture an added poignancy, for 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.
In many ways, it is surprising that Van Dyck spent so long in England. London, much less England, was hardly known as a centre of artistic excellence. If anything, the English would have been known in Van Dyck’s native Antwerp as inherently philistine, such was their lack of any home-grown artistic talent and almost total dependency on foreign, and especially Flemish, painters. From Holbein onwards the English court had looked overseas for its artists, but since Holbein had never been able to tempt an artist of equal calibre over the Channel. Rubens, famously, went to London in 1629-30, but tellingly as a diplomat and not to paint mere portraits. He was commissioned to paint the ceiling for the Banqueting House in Whitehall, one of the epic commissions of his career, but did so from his studio in Antwerp. Van Dyck himself was briefly in London before Rubens, in 1620-1, but apparently could not wait to leave for Italy, and the more glamorous palazzi and society of Genoa, Naples and Rome.
Every great artist, however, requires a great patron, and in Van Dyck’s case that patron was King Charles I. Ever since Charles’ youthful, and comically unsuccessful, mission to Spain to secure the marriage of the Infanta, the king had dreamed of turning his court into a rival of the great visual displays of Madrid, sparkling with Titians and Velasquezs, as part of a wishful civilising exercise on his disparate and badly administrated kingdom. His first route towards that end was to spend lavishly on collections of Old Masters, most notably the Mantua collection secured for about £15,000 in 1628 with the help of Nicholas Lanier, the ‘Master of the King’s Musick’. Such was Charles’ enthusiasm for buying that he would often be present at the moment of delivery, insisting that crates delivered at night were immediately unpacked, and playing games of attribution by candlelight. But it was not enough for Charles to be surrounded by great art; he wanted to be in it.
Charles, more than any other English king, fell into the trap of believing that the image of power equated to its reality. The tradition is that when Charles saw Van Dyck’s c.1628 portrait of Nicholas Lanier [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] he demanded that Rubens’ star pupil should be ‘sent for over into England.’ It was largely through Van Dyck’s friend, the royal fixer Endymion Porter, that the artist was finally lured to England in April 1632, and all the indications are that it was an expensive exercise. Over the next year he was given a gold medal and chain worth £110, a pension of £200 a year, a house and studio in Blackfriars (by the river, with a special landing dock for the King), and a grace and favour residence in Eltham Palace to the south of London. In addition, he was promptly knighted, on 5th July 1632, and appointed ‘principalle Paynter in Ordinarie to their Majesties’. Van Dyck celebrated his new high status in the c.1633/4 self-portrait with a sunflower [Duke of Westminster’s collection], in which he displays his gold chain, and points flamboyantly towards a sunflower often taken to represent the king, or at least loyalty to the crown. Van Dyck’s first English commissions included a series of full-length equestrian portraits of Charles, and most famously the ‘Great Peece’ [Royal Collection], a monumental canvas depicting the King and his wife Henrietta Maria with the two eldest children. It was the first time an English monarch had been depicted in a semi-domestic setting, seated, and surrounded by dogs. In Charles’ eyes it was the perfect image of the contented royal family, and thus by extension a contented nation.
Aside from a brief return to Antwerp and Brussels in 1634-5, Van Dyck remained in England. In addition to a whole host of royal commissions, he established a successful portrait practice at his Blackfriars studio, and the resulting paintings changed the style and format of British portraiture forever. Despite the fact that Charles I rarely paid him on time, it appears Van Dyck lived comfortably, not least because his main competitors, Daniel Mytens and Cornelius Johnson, soon admitted defeat and left London. He charged between £50 and £60 for a full-length, £30 for a half-length and £20 for a head and shoulders, and some scope of his success can be learned from Oliver Millar’s catalogue raisonné for Van Dyck’s English period, which lists some 264 known works. (It says something of English taste that the vast majority of these are portraits, there being little demand for mythological or religious scenes.) Inevitably, such a production line meant that Van Dyck came to rely on his studio assistants, and with his later English portraits it often becomes difficult to discern where the ‘studio’ ends and Van Dyck begins. It is only in wholly autograph late works such as the present self-portrait, therefore, that we can get a true glimpse of the mature Van Dyck at his best. Indeed, the intense quality seen in the self-portrait confirms that many of Van Dyck’s later commissioned works, which are occasionally crude and two-dimensional by contrast, were increasingly left to his assistants.
The entire time Van Dyck spent in England was during Charles’ period of ‘personal rule’ from 1629-1640, known to opponents as the ‘eleven years’ tyranny’. The King’s refusal to meet with Parliament meant that he had to resort to other unpopular measures to raise money, and further antagonism was created by his increasingly ‘catholic’ religious policies. At about the time Van Dyck painted his last self-portrait, therefore, Charles’ kingdom was becoming increasingly difficult to rule. In 1639 rebellion broke out in Scotland, and in 1640 he 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 Charles’ prerogative powers. MPs also targeted Charles’ closest supporters, impeaching Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford (a prominent patron of Van Dyck) in early 1641. By 1642 the Parliamentarians and the Royalists would be in open conflict.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, that Van Dyck should begin to think of leaving England and once again establishing himself on the continent. Another catalyst for his decision to leave was almost certainly the death of Rubens in May 1640. Van Dyck had married for the first time, to Mary Ruthven, in February 1640, but already by October that year he travelled to Antwerp and Brussels, doubtless hoping to be established as Rubens’ successor. True to his increasingly erratic temperament, he turned down one 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, however, 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, again seeking work (possibly the decoration of Long gallery in the Louvre), but apparently finding none.
Ill health then forced Van Dyck to return to London. A clue as to when his health began to decline can be found in his visits to Bath, then the recuperative capital of England, which are dated from August 1639, and before the present self-portrait was painted. Van Dyck 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, dumm viveret, multis immortalitatem donaverat vitam’, or, ‘Antony Van Dyck – Who, while he lived, gave to many immortal life.’
The present self-portrait must be the picture sold from Sir Peter Lely’s collection in 1680. In Lely’s sale catalogue, the picture is described as 'Of Sir Anthony Van Dyck… His Own Picture in an Oval,' with measurements of ‘01f 10 in. by 01 f 6 in.’ These dimensions (22 by 18 inches, 55.9 by 45.7 cm) accord well with the current painting. Furthermore, Philip Mould Ltd has recently discovered a copy of Van Dyck’s painting, signed ‘PL’ [Private Collection], which is almost certainly a late autograph copy by Lely himself. Previously, opinion has been divided over whether the current ornate frame is original to the picture. However, Malcolm Rogers has pointed to a Mortlake tapestry at Knole, in which a representation of Van Dyck’s Self-Portrait with Endymion Porter is seen within a similarly designed frame (the current frame on the Prado picture is later). Finally, the addition of the sunflower so prominently displayed in the centre of the frame may be taken as an allusion by Van Dyck, or the picture’s first owner, of the artist’s connection with Charles I.
 The final figure paid for the collection is uncertain. See for example Ian Spink, ‘Lanier in Italy’, Music & Letters, Vol. 40, no. 3 (July 1959), pp.242-252.
 Charles Carlton, Charles I the Personal Monarch, 2nd edn., London 1995, p143-4
 This phrase and comes from a later account noted by Charles Beale after a conversation with Sir Peter Lely, and apparently first published by Horace Walpole. See William Hookham Carpenter, ‘Pictorial Notices, consisting of a Memoir of Sir Anthony Van Dyck’, p.23, London 1844.
 S. Barnes, N. de Poorter, O. Millar, H. Vey, Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, Yale & London 2004, p.8.
 For the late Oliver Millar’s difficulties on this question, see ‘Van Dyck 1599-1999 – Conjectures and Refutations’, Hans Vlieghe ed., Turnhout 2001, p.132.
 Robin Blake, Anthony Van Dyck – A Life, London 1999, p.340.
 'Sir Peter Lely's Collection,' The Burlington Magazine, August 1943, p. 187. See also Diana Dethloff, 'The Executor's account book the dispersal of Sir Peter Lely's Collection,' Journal of the History of Collections, 1996, pp. 18, 29.