Sir Anthony Van Dyck, gentleman-paynter

Van Dyck self portrait

Van Dyck self portrait

I couldn’t resist using the antiquated spelling. For that was Sir Anthony’s full title: Principalle Paynter in Ordinarie to their Majesties.

I visited the beautiful exhibition dedicated to Van Dyck at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris.

First a short biography of the artist (here, in this self-portrait painted in his early twenties.) Born in 1599 in Anvers, young Antoon van Dyck was noticed for his precocious talent, and he became, at the age of 19, first assistant to the great Rubens. He soon leaves for Italy, where he meets with much success as a portraitist. Then he returns to his native Netherlands to pursue his career.

But his fame spreads through Europe and King Charles I of England invites him to London. During the following years Van Dyck, now knighted and Sir Anthony, will paint numerous portraits of the royal family and the British aristocracy. In 1641 he comes briefly to Paris at the request of Louis XIII. But his health deteriorates and he returns to London where he dies at the age of 42. He is buried in Saint-Paul’s Cathedral.

The exhibition, as can be expected from the Jacquemart-André, is beautifully set up. The walls are covered with velveteen in jewel tones. Far from competing with the paintings displayed, the warm colors and soft texture enhance the 17th century feel of the show. This makes for a pleasant, comfortable, intimate viewing experience. For an idea of the feel of the exhibition, see these stills and videos.

Van Dyck Maria de Tassis

Van Dyck Maria de Tassis

As for the works themselves, I was astounded by the maturity of displayed by Van Dyck as early as his early twenties. These are not only beautiful pictures. Van Dyck peers into the minds and souls of his models.

The exhibition also highlights the limitations of Van Dyck’s range: unlike his master Rubens, he lacks a sense of drama, and the lone religious painting in the show has a flat, rather uninspired feel compared to the sharpness of the portraits.

Van Dyck gave all the measure of his virtuosity  with the court paintings of his English period. Van Dyck had reached his highest ambition: knighted, he had married a noblewoman and become a gentleman, not only a gifted craftsman. He was the official painter of the royal family, as illustrated by this study (below) for a double portrait of Princesses Elizabeth and Anne, daughters of King Charles I.

Yet I somehow prefer his earlier, more insightful Dutch period, illustrated by this beautiful portrait of Maria de Tassis (right.) No wonder it was selected for the poster of the exhibition.

The show comprises 40 paintings and a dozen drawings. It does not purport to cover all of the work of Van Dyck, but remains a fascinating introduction to a great artist.

And this is also an opportunity to (re)discover the Musée Jacquemart-André. Any 18th century lover will browse there for many hours. The Jacquemart-André itself will be the subject of another post here very soon.

Van Dyck princesses Elisabeth and Anne

Van Dyck princesses Elisabeth and Anne

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