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In Focus: Van Dyck's Last Self-Portrait

Wed Nov 27, 2013

The Painting

Anthony Van Dyck’s final self-portrait (1640-41) is a work of huge international importance. It is one of just three self-portraits he is known to have created in Britain, and the only one of these ever likely to be made available for acquisition by a British public collection.

This painting dates from the very end of Van Dyck’s life and presents a direct, intimate image of an artist at work. He shows himself fashionably dressed but apparently in the act of painting, the line of his right shoulder and sleeve suggesting his hand is applying paint to a canvas just out of sight. For the present-day viewer it conveys a sense of direct engagement with Van Dyck as an individual, despite the passage of almost 400 years. Within a year of producing this portrait Van Dyck would be dead, buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral with the epitaph: ‘Anthony Van Dyck – who, while he lived, gave to many immortal life’.

The frame of this painting, crested with the sunflower motif associated with the artist, is of outstanding importance. Its unusually elaborate carving has led some commentators to suggest that it was made much later than the painting, but recent research shows that it is likely to have been influenced by Van Dyck himself and designed with his involvement.

The painting will be on show at the National Portrait Gallery throughout our fundraising campaign. Plan your visit now.

The Artist

Van Dyck is one of the greatest artists to have worked in Britain. He turned British portraiture away from the stiff, formal approach of Tudor and Jacobean painting, developing a distinctive fluid, painterly style that was to dominate portraiture well into the twentieth century.

Born in Antwerp in 1599, Van Dyck was an artistic prodigy who worked as an assistant to Peter Paul Rubens and became renowned as his most talented protégé. After honing his talents in Flanders and Italy, he came to Britain in 1632 at the invitation of King Charles I, making London his home until his death in 1641. Charles I was Van Dyck’s most famous patron, rewarding him with a knighthood and the title of Principal Painter. He established himself at the heart of the English court, producing magnificent portraits of the royal family and many of their courtiers. Van Dyck’s time in Britain corresponded with a period of particular upheaval in British politics, and by the end of 1642 civil war had broken out in Scotland and England.

‘Van Dyck was by far the most influential portrait painter ever to have worked in Britain – I urge you to help support the campaign to keep this extraordinary work in the UK and at the National Portrait Gallery, where it will find its perfect home. It is undoubtedly one of the finest and most important self-portraits in the history of British art.’
Stephen Deuchar,
Director of Art Fund
The campaign

The Art Fund is working in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery to buy Self-portrait for the nation. Sandy Nairne, Director of the Gallery, said, ‘It is very rare to have the opportunity to acquire a portrait as important as Van Dyck’s last self-portrait. If we can raise the necessary funds it will be available to everyone in Britain, having previously hung in private collections. This masterpiece occupies a key place in British art and history, and we plan to display the portrait here at the Gallery and also to show it with partner museums and galleries around the country. Each and every donation, small and large, will bring us closer to our target of £12.5m and play a part in placing this painting in a public setting.’