Van Dyck and Britain

Van Dyck Henrietta Maria and Charles I

Van Dyck Henrietta Maria and Charles I

After visiting, and immensely enjoying the Van Dyck exhibition at the Jacquemart-Andre last fall in Paris, I was anxious to see this new one in London. There was very little overlap, apart from the self-portrait of the artist reproduced at the beginning of the prior post, and the portrait of Lady Killigrew at the bottom of this other post.

So how do the shows compare? The Paris one was by far the more pleasant to visit. The velvet on the walls, the smaller rooms, the careful lighting made it a pleasure to linger there.

At the Tate, the setting looks harsh and cheap by comparison, and the reflexions of the glaring floodlights make it difficult at times to distinguish the works presented. I also missed the wonderful, moving, insightful portraits of Van Dyck’s Flemish period, but that was imposed by the theme of the exhibition. Here we see Van Dyck as the most gifted and successful painter of the court of Charles I.

But what is missing in terms of emotional depth in these royal or aristocratic portraits is compensated by the interest of the political context. Some of the models, including King Charles I himself and Archbishop William Laud, were beheaded only years after they sat for Van Dyck. Others perished in the battles of the Engish Civil War. Queen Henrietta Maria died in exile in her native France.

It is impossible to see this show without remembering that Van Dyck was painting a brilliant world on the verge of collapse. I was reminded of the refinenement of 18th century French aristocratic society on the eve of the Revolution.

I also appreciated glimpses into the artist’s private life. There is a portrait of his presumed mistress, and one he painted of the Scottish lady he later married. Both beautiful ladies, in very different ways. He shows his wife clutching a rosary in her hands. This affirmation of their Catholic faith is a powerful statement at a time of dire political and religious strife.

Beyond the lace, pearls and satins, beyond the extraordinary talent of Van Dyck, there is a sense of impending doom in this show. History comes to life. If you happen to be in London, by all means see it.

Until May 17, 2009 at the Tate Britain.

Van Dyck Lady Elisabeth Thimbleby and Dorothy Viscountess Andover

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4 Comments to “Van Dyck and Britain”

  1. Catherine Delors says:

    How right you are. Louise: our perception of these portraits is shaped by our knowledge of what was to follow. And I too would have loved to see full portraits of Louis and Anne by Van Dyck. Fortunately we have the gorgeous portrait of Anne by his master, Rubens.

  2. Louise says:

    Hello Catherine,

    I can well believe that the Tate setting does not do justice to Van Dyck’s work! Still, better than no exhibition at all …

    It’s curious how Van Dyck’s English works carry that sense of doom for modern viewers (by which I mean almost every generation since the Civil War). I suspect it’s mostly hindsight, but superimposed on the melancholic air that was so fashionable then. I know the story of Bernini’s supposed reaction to seeing the triple portrait of Charles, but I think it’s apocryphal. I certainly felt the same way when I saw (by sheerest luck) the huge portrait of the Earl of Pembroke’s family, in 1989. There was something about it, though I rather think it was knowing that the handsome Earl of Carnarvon was killed in the war that caused it!

    I wonder sometimes what the results would have been had Van Dyck ever been in a position to paint Louis and Anne. There are two oil sketches surviving from his brief visit to Paris (in 1640 or ’41, I forget which – very close to Van Dyck’s death, anyway) but they don’t really give much idea of how he’d have portrayed them. I can’t quite imagine Louis as Van Dyck’s romantic brush might have rendered him, although come to think of it, his portrait of Gaston d’Orleans might give some idea. For that matter, how curious it would be to see how he would have portrayed Richelieu! It would have been a fascinating contrast with de Champaigne’s magnificent portraits.

    Thank you for another excellent article!

    Best wishes,

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    He certainly is, Felio! As the men, those were silk stockings. Women wore the same, but didn’t show their legs…

  4. Felio Vasa says:

    Thank you for this post. Van Dyck’s fabrics are so gorgeous. Just the shoes and nylons (is that what the men wore) are spectacular. He’s a true master.

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