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The Death of Van Dyck - December 1641

2 December 2011

Adored by King Charles I for his iconic portraits, Van Dyck was a prolific artist, painting on average a painting a week.

Exactly three hundred and seventy years ago on the 9th day of this very month (December) 1641, Sir Anthony Van Dyck died in his home at Blackfriars. His patron, the ill-fated King Charles I, promised his physician three hundred pounds if he could save the life of the forty two year-old artist. The physician’s best efforts were in vain; Van Dyck succumbed and his body was solemnly borne to London’s greatest Anglican cathedral, St Paul’s, where he was buried – an honour unheard of for a Catholic, let alone a Flemish foreigner. Such was the five foot tall, bandy-legged King’s heavy reliance upon the artist’s unfailingly flattering royal portraits, that Charles gave a similarly flattering memorial to his much needed spin-doctor.

A glossily smooth operator, Van Dyck produced many iconic portraits of the King. Often he depicted Charles on a war horse staying his mount beneath a mighty English oak – thereby avoiding the rather touchy height issue. In the portrait below Charles is painted as a pensive and noble gentleman-knight; a re-incarnation, even, of Saint George himself perhaps?

Thankfully for Charles, the camera was yet to be invented and thus a veil was pulled over England’s eyes.

Van Dyck painted forty complimentary images of the King, thirty of his queen, Henrietta Maria, and a further four hundred of the court at large. On average, this meant he produced one painting a week, an astonishingly output. Consequently, Van Dyck allows us an unrivalled peek into the extraordinary lives of these pre-civil war Cavaliers.

The refinement, nobility and sophistication of Van Dyck’s sitters ooze through layers of paint. His elegant sitters have long, white, feminine hands that haven’t seen a day of work; exquisite clothes made from the finest silks, velvets, leathers and brocade; and with such aristocratic bearing that one cannot doubt their privileged status. The brothers Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart are two such cases; images to set the puritan roundheads ranting and raving. With snooty distain, Lord Bernard lifts up his jacket so we can see the staggering silver silk of his under-jacket. How unpleasant he seems! How consumed with arrogance and swagger! And how amazing that his elder brother (with very similar facial features) looks so much gentler and kinder.  

As well as being an exceptional artist, Van Dyck was a dashing lover who took full advantage of the courtly beauties that surrounded him. His favourite mistress, the fiery (and curiously named) Margaret Lemon lives on passionately in his work. Furiously jealous, Margaret resented her lover painting other women, and once tried to bite his thumb off in hope of ending his career.

In 2009 the Tate Britain held a Van Dyck exhibition in which it rather cheekily hung Margaret next to a portrait of his wife – inviting a tantalising comparison. Lady Van Dyck wears a dress of the palest virginal blue and seems to be shooting the painter a rather sharp look. His stunning lover on the other hand is accompanied by Cupid, the god of love; she is dressed in loose fitting cottons and seductively lifts up her sleeve to reveal a milky soft arm whilst sensuously rubbing her hand over a polished metal helmet. Van Dyck no doubt would have been amused by the curation: his wife perhaps less so.

So how did the son of an Antwerp merchant become such an indispensably fashionable addition to the English court? In Flanders, Van Dyck had been a precocious pupil of the peripatetic, diplomat-artist Peter Paul Rubens. It was Rubens - with a finger in every European courtly pie - who introduced Van Dyck to the English court, knowing that the culturally sophisticated King Charles I was desperate for an in-house artist to put the Stuart’s firmly on the Baroque map. Although at first Van Dyck wasn’t desperately keen to settle in dank and chilly England, Charles offered him an annual salary, a house in Blackfriars, a lady-in-waiting as a wife, a clutch of mistresses, an apartment in Eltham Palace and a knighthood. Van Dyck was persuaded.
Van Dyck’s death at only forty two was a great loss to British art; one wonders what he might further have produced. But history was on the march and only a year later, in 1642, the country erupted in Civil War. Nine years later, his adoring patron – King Charles I – got the chop.
 
To see the real thing, sign up for Art History UK’s ‘European Baroque Courts’ tour on 10th December 2011.
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