AS a pupil of Rubens, Van Dyck suffers somewhat by comparison with the great creative genius of his master. Contrasted with the splendid versatility of the older man, his gifts seem very limited. Aspiring in his early ambitions to emulate Rubens in every particular, he fell far short of the mark. Nature had intended him for a specialist, and as the years moved on he reluctantly concentrated his energies in a single direction. Portrait painting became at last his acknowledged forte. In this field the relation between the two great Flemings is reversed. Van Dyck’s place is among the world’s foremost portrait painters, while Rubens falls into second rank.
Van Dyck is indubitably one of the people’s favourite portrait painters. It was in the nature of his art to please. Good taste governed his work from first to last. No false note ever jarred the perfect harmony of his conceptions. In his hands a coarse subject was refined, an ugly subject beautified, and a beautiful subject idealized. Men, women and children yielded up to him the secret of the best that was in them.
The young Van Dyck was only nineteen years of age when he entered the studio of Rubens, but he was already so advanced in his craft that he was admitted to the freedom of St. Luke’s Guild. For the next three years much of his work was in collaboration with his master, and the rest bears so strongly the mark of Rubens that we realize the wisdom of the older man’s advice to travel in Italy. With what interest do we follow him through his five years’ journeyings in the enchanted land of art. With the spell of the old masters upon him he began to come into his own. Titian was his idol, as he had been that of Rubens, and far more imitative in his nature than Rubens, Van Dyck often borrowed his motives direct from the great Venetian. Such borrowings were, however, mostly in subject compositions. His portraits declared the advent of a new master.
The portrait of Cardinal Bentivoglio be-longs to the Italian period, and marks a great step forward in Van Dyck’s career. Nowhere in the world could the painter have found a sitter of more striking personality. Bentivoglio was born in Ferrara in 1579, and at the age of nineteen achieved a diplomatic exploit which attracted the attention of the pope. Henceforth his services as confidential adviser were in constant demand. None knew better than he how to reconcile apparently irreconcilable interests. From one responsible post to another he had finally been raised to a cardinalship at about the time Van Dyck came to Italy. In the portrait he is seated in a large arm-chair wearing his ecclesiastical robes, scarlet and white. The head is turned alertly as if to answer a question. At once we know this man for what he is: refined and scholarly in temperament, keen in insight, suave in manner, wary of self-revelation; ecclesiastic, diplomat and man of the world.
Seldom if ever again did Van Dyck produce a work so spontaneously and vitally conceived.
It was in Genoa that Van Dyck made his longest tarrying. If we may trust the figures of an eighteenth-century writer 1 he made seventy-two portraits in this city alone. The Genoese nobility gave him generous patron-age, and to this day Genoa is a treasure house of his portraits. The great families represented in his canvases make a sonorous list of names: Doria, Spinola, Brignole-Sala, Durazzo, Balbi, and Lomellini. With this class Van Dyck found his own peculiar vocation. He was preëminently fitted to be the interpreter of aristocracy. Not since Titian had the painter appeared who could so en-noble his subjects. He had a magic gift of imparting to his sitter an air of dignity and elegant repose. He understood all the signs of birth and breeding, which are so elusive when we try to describe them, so unmistakable when we see them. In a word his portraits have distinction.
A perfect illustration of these qualities is in the companion pictures of the Marchese and the Marchesa di Brignole-Sala, in the Palazzo Rosso at Genoa. A romantic interest attached to this couple whose happy married life was of such short duration. Upon the death of the marchioness the disconsolate young husband took priestly orders, and passed his life in literary work. In his portrait the marchese is mounted on a splendid white horse, an impersonation of the ” verray parfit gentil knight.” He rides directly towards us waving his plumed hat with one hand as if in salute. There is no gaiety in the gesture, only a grave courtesy. The face, singularly long and narrow, is that of a poet, with dreamy eyes and a melancholy sweetness of expression. The lady who was the object of this life devotion makes a charming figure standing in the portico of her palace. Her rich dress sweeps behind her in lustrous folds, a large ruff encircles her neck, and she wears a jewelled head-dress, with a long feather. Her face is small and almost child-like in expression, but she bears herself well. Apart from their other more important merits as portraits, both these pictures have splendid decorative quality.
One more gem from the Genoese series must be mentioned the dear little ” White Boy,” of the Palazzo Durazzo. The white satin costume suggests the name, made with baggy knee breeches which give the figure a charming quaintness. The little fellow stands leaning against a chair, arm akimbo, looking out at us with an innocent smile which goes straight to the heart. There is nothing artificial in the picture ; even the child’s hair is mussed, as if he had paused only a moment in his play. In freshness and spontaneity, Van Dyck never in more sophisticated days surpassed this child study.
It was probably in the year 1626 when Van Dyck returned to his native city of Antwerp, to remain for the following six years in the Netherlands. Though engaged during this period upon a large number of sacred paintings, portrait orders crowded upon him. He now had his craft sufficiently in hand to make it express his intention. It was a time of continuous growth, in which he added vigour and subtlety to his previous elegance and superficial charm. As in Italy, his patrons were largely from the wealthy and titled classes, and brought into full exercise his peculiar gifts.
The companion portraits of Philippe Le Roy, and his wife, in full length, show his high water mark. Titian himself could not have given more noble distinction to this gentleman who stands caressing a large hound, and confronting us with an expression of courteous though reserved friendliness. His beautiful wife, almost timid in her sweetness, stands with equal grace and dignity, holding a large fan. The decorative quality here, as in all Van Dyck’s works, is above praise. He knew how to use to the utmost advantage all the rich accessories of costume: the shimmering lights on satin folds, the contrast of delicate lace against dark velvet, the gleam of jewels against fair skin.
Among the Spanish grandees holding official positions in the Low Countries was the Marquis of Moncada, for whom Van Dyck painted one of his finest equestrian portraits. The man himself had neither beauty nor distinction, but dressed in full armour and en-throned upon a superb white horse, he had every advantage which art could give him. There is a tradition that Rubens had presented Van Dyck with a white horse as a parting gift on the occasion of his journey into Italy, and this is the noble animal, we are told to believe, which figures so often on Van Dyck’s canvases. Whether this is so or not, Van Dyck showed an intimate understanding of horses, as well as of dogs, and in many instances introduced them with fine effect into his pictures. The horse of Moncada is not a mechanical accessory, but the most beautiful and vital feature in the composition.
An episode of Van Dyck’s Netherlandish period was a visit to Haarlem and Frans Hals. Appearing at the studio incognito, he asked to have his portrait painted in two hours. Hals accomplished the order in the given time, when Van Dyck remarked that painting appeared a simple matter : he would like to try it himself. Seating himself at the easel he had not proceeded far when Hals exclaimed in amazement, ” You are Van Dyck, no person but he could do what you have done.”
In the pictures of Van Dyck’s Flemish period are some delightful studies of child life. The little daughter of Madame de Colyns pulling impatiently her mother’s arm, and turning around shyly to the painter, was apparently ” caught ” upon the canvas with-out any attempt at posing. The essential child spirit is here : she is a real little girl. The serious little boy who stands with his father in the portrait called Richardot and his Son, is of another type, but not a whit less childlike. He is proud and happy to be with his father, and though he regards the painter’s awesome preparations with no little timidity he means to stand quiet and do his part towards the picture. It was also in his years of residence in Antwerp that Van Dyck progressed in the knowledge of the eternal feminine. The face of Madame de Colyns is beautiful in motherliness, in the patience and serenity of expression which tell the story of her unselfish life. The unknown lady in the Louvre group. of Mother and Child is exquisite in gentle refinement. Anna Wake, too, is of those rare spirits who live like Elaine in a high tower chamber of idealism. Eut Louisa van Tassis is a coquette. The eyes gleam with mischief, and the small mouth curves in an enchanting smile. Not since Mona Lisa has a smile proved so fascinating to so many people. Yet Louisa’s smile has none of the mystery of the Italian lady’s; it is frankly teasing.
A very interesting portrait of the Arch-duchess Isabella gives us an insight into the character of this remarkable woman. Late in life she took religious orders, and even as abbess she still held firmly the reins of government. She was sixty-six years of age when she discovered, and promptly averted, a plot to raise the Low Countries to an independent republic. This is the woman of indomitable will whom Van Dyck shows us. The severe simplicity of her religious garb accentuates the forcible character of the countenance. There is a shrewd gleam half humourousin the eyes, and the large mouth, with tightly closed lips, reveals the person of determination. The story runs that at the siege of Ostend, at which she accompanied her husband, she vowed she would not change her linen till the city was hers, and looking into this face, we may almost believe she kept the vow, though the siege lasted over three years!
Van Dyck had been appointed court painter to Isabella in 1631, and in the following year came the much more important appointment at the court of England. Charles I was a genuine connoisseur, and was eager to avail himself of the best talent the world afforded. He was already an ardent admirer of Rubens, and he was quick to recognize the excellence of Van Dyck’s work. He now made the painter a prime favourite, established him in a house at Blackfriars, conferred the honour of knighthood upon him and busied him with commissions.
Van Dyck’s entire life up to this time had precisely fitted him for this position, as if destiny had shaped him for this sole end.
Never was court painter so fortunate in a patron, and never was king so fortunate in an interpreter, not even Titian and Charles V, nor Velasquez and Philip IV. The two men understood each other from the first. Together they set forth the Stuart doctrine of the divine right of kings. For if Charles knew how to act the part, it was Van Dyck who made him look the part. It is indeed impossible to separate Charles I in our thoughts from the portraits in which Van Dyck has perpetuated his personality. Always as we read the story of his reign there rises before us the vision of the poetic face, framed in the waving hair, with melancholy eyes, and a re-mote expression.
Van Dyck’s nine years’ residence in England were the palmiest days of Charles. He was trying his experiment of ruling without a Parliament, and ignoring the discontent of the people, was in the full enjoyment of fancied success. It was not till 1641 that England’s wrath burst forth the very year of Van Dyck’s death. In the long struggle which followed there were many gallant Royalists who held stoutly to the king’s cause. Yet perhaps not one of them all, not even those who laid down their lives in the Civil War, did so much for the Stuart cause as Van Dyck had done in the royal portraits. We must accept seriously the historian’s verdict, extravagant as it may seem, that these pictures, with their melancholy majesty, had a great influence in producing a reactionary sentiment in favour of the martyred king and the final restoration of the Stuarts.
Van Dyck is said to have made no less than thirty-eight portraits of the king, and thirty-five of the queen, Henrietta Maria, besides many pictures of their children, singly or in groups. A noble monument of the court painter’s work is the Van Dyck room of Windsor Castle, containing twenty-two of his pictures, of which ten are royal portraits. Here is the interesting three-fold portrait of Charles, showing the head from different points of view. This was painted to send to Bernini, to guide him in making a portrait bust of the king. The sculptor examined the pictures gravely, and exclaimed, ” Something evil will befall this man; he carries misfortune on his face.” In the Windsor collection is also Van Dyck’s equestrian portrait of the king, riding forth under a marble arch. Still another portrait here shows him in full length, in his robes of state. Not any of these, how-ever, equals in beauty and distinction the famous portrait of the Louvre. The setting is a wooded glade. Charles is in hunting costume, and having dismounted, stands in profile, turning towards the spectator, while an equerry holds the horse behind him. The broad-brimmed Cavalier’s hat, worn jauntily aslant, the short white satin tunic, the knee breeches and high buskins, the long swinging sword, and the fierce spurs, give much romantic charm to the figure. The air of aloofness with which he surveys the scene is Van Dyck’s subtlest touch. Even in holiday mood, Charles does not forget that he is king. The canvas is like a rich old tapestry; over-head the spreading branches of the, tree embroidered against the cloud-flecked sky, and beneath the harmoniously interwoven figures of the king, his horse and the attendants.
The king is seen in full official dignity in the Dresden portrait, and though this picture is in all probability Sir Peter’s Lely’s copy of Van Dyck’s original, it is thoroughly characteristic. Charles now wears the mantle of the order of the Garter, resplendent with the great six-pointed silver star. With one hand resting on a table, he turns as if to survey the whole English nation with his supercilious glance. Cavil as we may at the weakness of the face, and the affected languor of the ex-pression, we must admit that we are in the presence of royalty. It was with the same calm majesty of bearing that we imagine him walking forth on the January morning of 1649 to meet his death upon the scaffold. ” I go,” said he, ” from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown.”
In portraits of the Queen Henrietta Maria, Van Dyck contented himself with superficial prettiness rather than with any psychological analysis. There is much in the history of this French princess that is admirable : her devotion to her husband, and her fortitude and courage in the great crisis. But in these earlier years of her married life, her character was as yet untested, and apparently Van Dyck had no notion of its latent possibilities. The small regular features and rather insipid expression are familiar to us through their frequent repetition in half-length and full-length figures. A stiff row of curls is pressed flat across the forehead in the prevailing fashion. Perhaps the most attractive of her portraits, one altogether unique in the series, is the full-length figure accompanied by the dwarf Geoffrey Hudson. A large hat lends a picturesque charm to the composition, and the lady seems here a real human being and not a royal doll. The queen had a peculiar fancy for dwarfs which were in this period the common playthings of royalty. At the Spanish court they were in high favour, and were often painted by Velasquez. Geoffrey Hudson was eighteen inches high and celebrated for his intelligence. Sir Walter Scott, in ” Peveril of the Peak,” tells the amusing story of the little man’s first appearance at court. It was at some royal fête where a banquet was served. A huge pie was brought in and placed upon the board, when out stepped Geoffrey, to the infinite amusement of the queen.
The children of Charles I are, it is safe to say, the best known picture children of the world. Nearly every important gallery has one of Van Dyck’s portrait groups, and copies and reproductions have carried these works far and wide. All these pictures are noticeably deficient in compositional excellence. The figures stand in a stiff row as a provincial photographer might have arranged them. The delightful spontaneity of Van Dyck’s earlier child studies is altogether missing. The painter evidently regarded these groups as official portraits. The young princes and princesses were on parade, and it was fitting that they should bear their honours with dignity. Hence they pose in grown up attitudes of men and women, and are more or less self-conscious in expression. They are, nevertheless, charmingly pretty and winning. Charles, the young Prince of Wales, described even by his fond mother as a hopelessly ugly baby, is painted with beautiful round big eyes, and a veritable Cupid’s bow of a mouth. It is hard to believe that he grew up to be the weak and dissolute King Charles II. Little Mary is a miniature repetition of the queen. James, Duke of York, is more delightfully child-like than either. They all wear the – most enchanting finery, which adds not a little to our satisfaction. The three eldest children are the most familiar. Two younger daughters, Elizabeth and Anne, introduced into some larger groups, are less interesting.
Van Dyck’s favour with the king naturally drew to him the patronage of nearly all the English peerage. There is scarcely a great house in England today which does not cherish some ancestral portrait by Van Dyck. Painted in the decade preceding the Civil War, his works are of immense interest in the character study of many who figured prominently in the ensuing conflict. Foremost among them was Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, at one time the king’s strongest counsellor, in whom, says the historian, ” the very genius of tyranny was embodied.” Van Dyck’s best portrait of the earl shows him seated with his secretary at a table. Macau-lay’s splendid description has made this work a famous historical document. Van Dyck is nowhere stronger and more penetrating in his character delineation. The determined mouth and glowering eyes show the resolute energy of a man whose theory of government was to rule by fear. Fearing nothing him-self, he pursued his ” thorough ” policy until the indignation of an outraged people brought him to the scaffold.
Another of the king’s counsellors was Archbishop Laud, whose persistent opposition to Puritanism made him also an object of popular hatred, and cost him his life. There is something very pathetic in the careworn face of Van Dyck’s portrait, and an expression of benignity which softens our opinion of his bigotry. We can better understand how, as he took barge for the Tower, hundreds of his poor neighbours stood by praying for his safety.
One of the staunchest adherents of the Crown was the king’s cousin, James Stuart, Duke of Lenox and Richmond. He was a born courtier, a typical Cavalier, precisely the sort of figure Van Dyck loved to idealize. The Metropolitan Museum in New York is fortunate in possessing a splendid full length portrait of this young man, painted in Van Dyck’s most distinguished vein. He stands with his hand on the head of a favourite grey-hound, and turns his high bred face to ours with an engaging smile. The rich court costume is ornamented with the insignia of the order of the Garter, and the figure is a complete impersonation of the court life of the period.
Philip, Lord Wharton, was another young nobleman whom Van Dyck painted in a charming fancy portrait, in the costume of a shepherd. One would scarcely suppose that this rather soft-faced youth would be made of stern stuff. In later years, however, his conscience compelled him to enter the Parliamentary army, taking sides against the king whose friend he had been. Van Dyck was especially happy in painting the younger men of the court, like Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart, George Digby, the Earl of Bristol, and William, Duke of Bedford.
His patrons included many ” fair women,” as well as brave men.” There is something of sameness among them, a resemblance due not altogether to the uniformity of fashion. The painter was impartial in bestowing small features, and a rosebud mouth upon them all. Venetia, Lady Digby, is one of these favoured ladies. Another still more celebrated was the Countess of Sunderland, whom he painted many times. This is the ” Saccharissa ” who inspired the muse of Waller, and to whom was written the exquisite ” Go, lovely Rose.” The poet wrote also in praise of Van Dyck’s beautiful portrait, as Petrarch had, so many centuries before, sung the praises of Memmi’s portrait of his Laura. Beatrice de Cusance is a far more fascinating creature than these. She is painted in full length, turning to look at us with a half disdainful, and altogether adorable expression. As in Louisa van Tassis, the painter has caught here a fleeting vision of a woman’s soul.
As the years moved on, Van Dyck’s work began to show signs of deterioration. It is hard even for a strong man to withstand the temptations of flattery and success, and Van Dyck’s moral fibre was by no means of the strongest. To meet the demands upon him he was obliged to depend much upon the help of assistants, and his work became mechanical. In elegance and repose his figures were never deficient, but even this elegance became stereotyped. We weary at last of his oft repeated motives, of the pillared background, with the draped curtain, of the men with arms akimbo, and the women with hands folded in front, of the averted gaze, and self-conscious expression. In the painting of the hands we notice a decided decline from the earlier days when he reproduced so carefully their individual characteristics. Now a studio model supplied this feature for the pictures, and we find the same delicate and characterless hand with tapering fingers, reappearing indifferently on the men, women and children of his canvases. More serious still is the accompanying decline in characterization which is especially apparent in the women.
It may be because the painter realized that danger threatened his art if he continued as he was, that he began to plan a return to Antwerp. It may be that he foresaw the troubles awaiting his royal patron in England. Doubt-less he longed for another chance to paint the great subject pictures which he had always been so ambitious to produce. Rubens was now dead and he was the greatest living Flemish painter. A hearty welcome awaited him in his native land. But the painter’s homecoming was never accomplished. Under the double strain of self-indulgence and professional labours his health was undermined. In the midst of his arrangements the hand of death was upon him, and his life came to an end in December, 1641.
Much has been written of the place of Van Dyck in the history of art. By universal con-sent his name is associated with those of the great Venetians. The leading notes of his style are distinction, repose, charm. Generally speaking he was little of a psychologist. His patrons belonged to that social class in which reserve is a test of breeding. The painter was not required to interpret their character. Yet he was capable of a profound character study, and as opportunity offered, showed a remarkable insight into the minds of his subjects. His fine decorative sense, united with brilliant technique, gives great pictorial value to his works, aside from their qualities as portraits. His merits need no explanation: they are of the obvious kind which appeal to a wide public. While greater artists may be ignored, or unappreciated, he has always been admired. His work was the inspiration of the eighteenth-century English portrait school, and to this day his popularity is still undiminished in England and America.