Sir Anthony van Dyck

No discussion of 17th century portraiture in England would be complete without mentioning the great Sir Anthony van Dyck. A student of Rubens (who painted the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London, which still stands today), he came to England in the 1620s to work as court painter to King Charles I, and remained there until his own death in 1641.

Unlike his successor in Charles’ employ, William Dobson, Van Dyck was fortunate to have  worked in the studio of the great Master, Peter Paul Rubens, and to have employed his talent in Europe, painting for wealthy and influential patrons across the continent. In England he produced some of the most recognised works in the history of English portraiture, such as this one of King Charles:

Charles I three
Dated c.1635/1636, ©The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

….and his own self-portrait, which was recently purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in London after a successful publicity campaign to save it from being sold abroad or into private hands.

Van Dyck self portrait
Painted c.1640, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Van Dyck’s death in 1641, shortly before the King left London for the final time as the Civil War began, leaves us with an intriguing question. Had he lived, would he have followed the King, and continued painting portraits of what was left of the Royalist aristocracy in exile from London? Or would he have looked to his own comfort and self-preservation and fled back to the safety of Europe? I don’t know enough about him to be able to offer an answer, but the timing of his death seems oddly fitting, as if he was no longer needed by the times, with war and ugliness on the horizon, and was making way for someone else. Would his beautiful and elegant style have ‘fit’ in the middle of such a fight? I’d love to know how his work would, by necessity and austerity, have changed had he lived and remained by the King’s side to paint the Royalists at war, but then if he had, we wouldn’t have had Dobson, and the visual memory of the conflict that has been passed down to us would be strikingly different.

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