“Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture” the splendid exhibition that recently opened at the Frick Museum brings to mind what the critic Robert Hughes wrote about the artist over 30 years ago: “The peculiar achievement of Sir Anthony Van Dyck was to have invented the English gentleman…the now vanishing archetype of aristocracy calm and straight as a Purdey gun barrel.” Hughes was right. No artist with perhaps the exception of Sargent has so perfectly captured the glamour and panache of people that scarcely exist today.
The exhibition of over 100 works – some 15 large paintings and innumerable preparatory drawings and oil sketches – has been assembled from major museums and collections both here and abroad. Most importantly the images reveal Van Dyck’s ability to capture not only the appearance of his subjects but something of their inner life.
Born in Antwerp in 1599 to a family of patrician merchants, Van Dyck was still in his teens when he began as an assistant to Peter Paul Rubens, the city’s most celebrated artist. Van Dyck later became the chosen painter of Charles I of England, painting in the course of almost 10 years many portraits of the king and his family as well as members of the nobility. A horizontal painting entitled “Charles I and Henrietta Maria Holding a Laurel Wreath” on loan from the Czech Republic depicts the king dressed in a tunic of rose and silver brocade with a lace collar. His wife’ silvery satin dress is adorned with rose velvet ribbons that match the king’s tunic. Behind them the curtain is parted to reveal a stormy sky, perhaps a presage of things to come. It is the first time this painting has been seen in the United States.
Van Dyck has chosen similar colors for the elegant costumes worn for their formal wedding portrait by the nine year old Lady Mary, the Princess Royal, and her groom, 13 year old William, Prince of Orange. Dressed like grown ups in elegant pink and silver the future King William and Queen Mary of England attempt to look dignified as befits their station. However, one suspects they are longing for Van Dyck to finish painting for the day so they can get on to something more amusing.
Thanks to the inclusion of many of his preparatory sketches and drawings one can see how Van Dyck worked as he progressed from an apprentice to the most celebrated portrait painter in Europe. He seems to have preferred making rough sketches to indicate his subject’s pose while leaving many of the details to be decided later. When it came to the actual portrait he would usually paint the sitter’s face directly from life without an intermediary drawing.
While I especially liked Van Dyck’s oil sketches which have more freedom and immediacy than is found in the larger works, this is a breathtaking exhibition that is well worth more than one visit.