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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