This beguiling self-portrait was created around 1620 by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), one of the most talented portrait painters of all time. His sitters–poets, duchesses, painters and generals–were the elite of his age. He painted them in an elegant manner, capturing, in his best works it is often said, the sitter’s inner life.
The Frick Collection in New York has a major new exhibition running currently and, thanks to the internet, we can all take a virtual tour of the show.
And may I say, hat’s off to the Frick for their outstanding use of technology to advance knowledge of the exhibition itself as well as the work of Van Dyck. The Frick’s website is among the most advanced I have seen of all art museums. The following pictures and text are all modified from the museum’s website.
Born in Antwerp, Van Dyck rose to the top of his field, already assisting Flander’s most acclaimed artist, Peter Paul Rubens, in his late teens. Van Dyck spent the winter of 1620 in England, followed by a six year stay in Italy. By the age of 33, he was back in England, appointed principal painter to Charles I.
Van Dyck spent most of his Italian years in Genoa, a thriving Mediterranean port with an important Flemish community. In the wake of Peter Paul Rubens, who had preceded him there in the first decade of the century, he provided the city’s noble families with grand portraits, many of which still adorn their palaces. This portrait of a luxuriously dressed young woman standing against a loosely defined architectural background is a typical example of such images. Although she remains unidentified, the sash across her torso and the black edges of her cuffs seem to indicate she is a widow.
Anne Carey, later Countess of Clanbrassil, was the daughter of Henry Carey, second Earl of Monmouth, and Martha Cranfield. This portrait was likely painted on the occasion of her engagement to James Hamilton, heir of a Scottish family that had received large land grants in Northern Ireland. Lady Anne strides to the left in an Arcadian landscape, with the boulder behind her framing a woodland vista. Van Dyck reused this backdrop in other portraits, catering to the taste of English aristocrats who sought refuge from an increasingly unstable political situation in pastoral fantasies.
Van Dyck’s wife, Mary Ruthven, came from an aristocratic, if impoverished, family of Scottish Catholics and served as a maid of honor to Queen Henrietta Maria. Van Dyck’s marriage to her in early 1640 marked his social ascent, but the painter died less than two years later, just eight days after the birth of his daughter Justina. Van Dyck’s portrait of his new bride is a sensuously painted autograph work. A cluster of oak leaves bound in Lady van Dyck’s hair may symbolize constancy, while her elegantly splayed fingers call attention to the proscribed Catholic faith that she shared with her husband, symbolized in the crucifix she displays.
Descended from one of the most ancient noble families in the Southern Netherlands, Marie-Claire de Croÿ was created Duchess of Havré in her own right by the king of Spain upon her marriage to a cousin in 1627. The child who appears alongside her is likely Philippe-Eugène, the future bishop of Valencia. The painting shows van Dyck’s customarily grandiose and richly colored court portraits.
Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria, was the youngest child of Henri IV of France and Maria de’ Medici. In England, her lifelong devotion to the Catholic faith proved to be a major impediment to her popularity. Nevertheless, she served as the emotional mainstay of her husband’s life and provided an important cultural link among England, France, and the papal court at Rome. This is one of Van Dyck’s earliest portraits of the queen. He assimilates her into an English tradition of depicting queens in hunting dress, and the European practice of representing royalty in the company of dwarves — in this case, Jeffery Hudson, a famous member of the queen’s retinue.
Pomponne II de Bellièvre, Lord of Grignon, came from a prominent family of French statesmen and twice served as French ambassador to the English court. Van Dyck most likely painted Bellièvre during the latter’s first posting to London.. Van Dyck’s likeness is a study in muted elegance, with Bellièvre’s long brown hair lapping over his floppy collar while a sash of crimson silk accents his otherwise black and white costume.
The marriage of William of Orange and Mary, daughter of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, provided an important link between the English court and the Dutch Republic. In this smoothly executed formal wedding portrait, Van Dyck depicts the two children with linked hands, calling attention to the princess’s wedding ring. Account books record William’s many purchases on the occasion of his wedding, including the diamond brooch for Mary and suit of pink silk faithfully reproduced here.