Thursday, May 12, 2016

Van Dyck: ‘The Great Power of Execution’

by James Fenton

New York Review of Books

May 12, 2016

The last words of the dying painter Thomas Gainsborough in 1788—“We are all going to Heaven, and Vandyke is of the party”—serve as a reminder of the enduring presence of Anthony Van Dyck in the world of English portraiture during the centuries after his death. A Flemish protégé of Rubens, born in 1599, he had precocious success in Antwerp before making the great and necessary trip to Italy, where he paid particular attention to Venetian art, especially that of Titian. He made his base in Genoa, where, over a century later, in 1780, a guidebook estimated that there were still visible, in the palaces and churches of the city, no fewer than ninety-nine paintings by Van Dyck, of which seventy-two were portraits.

Antwerp bore him, Genoa raised him to his preeminence as a portraitist of the nobility, but it was in England, at the court of Charles I, that he achieved the most extraordinary monopoly on the imagination of posterity. For it is impossible to think of Charles and his wife Henrietta Maria, and the great figures of his court, without seeing them as Van Dyck portrayed them. And this portrayal has an unmistakable tinge of advocacy. It was hard for those born after to look on Charles’s noble features without thinking of his beheading as a form of martyrdom:

As I was going past Charing Cross
I saw a black man upon a black horse.
They told me it was Charles the First.
My God, I thought my heart would burst.


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