The Laurel Wreath

In around 1630-1632, the Dutch artist Daniel Mytens, at the time in the employ of King Charles, was commission to paint a double portrait of the monarch and his queen, Henrietta Maria. On this canvas, now part of the Royal Collection, the King is being passed a laurel wreath by his wife, as ‘a symbol of their union and a public statement of tenderness and intimacy.’  The result is below…

DM C and H

History tells us that the King was less than impressed, however, and another painter, a certain Antony Van Dyck, was asked to produce his own version…

AVD C and H
© Archiepiscopal Castle and Gardens, Kromeríž, Czech Republic

Van Dyck’s offering was better received, and replaced Mytens’ attempt on the royal wall. Within two years, Mytens had left England and returned to the Netherlands. Whether this was a direct result of the King’s snub or merely a matter of timing, we can’t be completely sure, but it marked the end of Mytens’ career as a royal painter, and he never worked in England again.

Uunfortunately for Mytens, I can see why Charles wanted an alternative. For starters, the background is drab and empty, offering none of the majesty, intensity or intimacy Charles was looking for. The royal couple’s expressions come across as slightly reluctant, with Charles gingerly reaching to take the wreath as if not entirely sure what to do with it, while Henrietta Maria looks rather bored with the whole affair.

Van Dyck’s, by comparison, ticks all the boxes. There is colour, glamour, a blue sky. Charles watches the queen with an intimacy Mytens completely omitted, and Henrietta Maria looks directly at the viewer, with an expression of satisfaction and the certainty of her role. Charles may be the king, but here the main player is definitely his wife! During the English Civil War she was mistrusted by many, being French and Catholic, and accused of holding a dangerous influence over Charles. Looking at Van Dyck’s double portrait, I wonder if the clever and gifted painter was also making subtle, foreshadowing allusions to this? He fulfilled the brief to Charles’ satisfaction, but may also have offered us a glimpse of the real dynamic in their relationship, and the second power behind the throne.

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1 Comment

  1. I always think of these as parts two and three of this depiction, with part one being the painting attributed to Mytens in Roy Strong’s “Charles I on Horseback”.

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