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The liveliness of Van Dyck’s portraits

Sir Edward Hyde, later 1st Earl of Clarendon, a veteran statesman and voluminous historian of the reign of Charles I, described the reign of this parliamentless monarch from 1628 to 1640 as a time when “this realm […] enjoyed the greatest calm and the greatest measure of happiness with which any people at any age for so long together have been blessed”. One of Clarendon’s modern biographers, Richard Ollard, more concisely called his subject’s depiction of Caroline England before the Civil Wars “as solid as a biscuit”. Since I began to write a partial life of Hyde in his early years, I have been struck by the fact that he was manifestly indifferent to a positive aspect of those years that historians of all political persuasions generally accept today. today: the delicate aesthetic glory of Caroline’s painting and portraiture, especially associated with the career of Anthony van Dyck.

Tom Carew, Hyde’s most brazen youthful friend, a brilliant scapegrace courtier poet, in a verse epistle surpasses even Ollard’s biscuit, summing up the years of the king’s personal reign as ‘our Halcyon dayes’. “Halcyon” refers to the kingfisher, that brightly colored bird of royal association, which Carew returns to later in the poem. Carew consistently celebrates a supremely aesthetic courtship. His greatest love elegy, “A Rapture,” is in every way explicitly Titanic. Van Dyck’s portrait supposed to depict Carew has probably been misattributed, but the fact that the poet lived and wrote from the very milieu that Van Dyck painted is indisputable.

The dates of Anthony van Dyck’s personal ascendancy over Caroline’s court portraits have compelling historical significance. It was brought back to London for good in 1632, at the height of Charles’ seemingly quiet reign without Parliament. He died, so harnessed that, despite the able aid of a well-oiled workshop, he is generally thought to have perished of overwork, late in 1641, nearly expiring with the peace in England.

Prior to Van Dyck’s arrival, the leading court portrait painter was the most Anglicized Daniel Mytens. His works have a certain retro appeal, embodying as they do a fashion on the verge of oblivion. To look at Charles I of Mytens or his image of the King’s future adversary on the battlefield, the 3rd Earl of Essex, is to see Duke Orsino and the future Earl Malvolio dreaming in their most beautiful cry of courtesy. The endearing and rigid immobility of Mytens will be supplanted by Van Dyck with a vivacity that passes directly from the interiority of their subjects to the susceptibility of their spectators.

On his first brief visit to London in 1621, the 22-year-old Van Dyck had been greatly impressed by the Titians taken in by the Earl of Arundel, the first he had ever seen. The Venetian and Dutch masters naturally shared a surprising psychological access to their models, even if they did not always care to show it.

Sir John Mennes (vs. 1637-1638), Anthony van Dyck. Photo: Artifact/Alamy Stock Photo

at Van Dyck Sir John Mennesby his splendid masking costume, product of the roaring royal 1630s, reveals this easy-going naval official, the drinking partner of amorous poet Robert Herrick, who would later be the despair of his own conscientious underling Samuel Pepys, just as clearly , affectionately and mischievously like the portraits of Titian by Pietro Aretino or Jacobo Strada.

But Sir Anthony had learned the courtier’s gift for concealing, as well as revealing, character. His ravishing fairytale vision of Charles’s wife, Henrietta Maria, was painted around 1636, the last year in which the court could regard the state of the British kingdoms with more or less undiluted satisfaction. Neither the Queen’s strong-willed personality nor her small stature are allowed to disrupt an archetype largely inherited from Elizabeth I, the “Gloriana” herself long since deceased.

Van Dyck soon became sufficiently indispensable to paint, if he chose, candidly to the point of playfulness. His timorous Archbishop Laud, already close to his fall from the eminence in 1641, appears, suggests Angus Haldane, awkwardly aware of his own complaints to the king about Van Dyck’s dearness. The Parliamentary oligarchy at its worst was pinned down before it was formed in Van Dyck’s 1639 portrait of the sternly Puritan, immensely wealthy and vainly simple MP Arthur Goodwin, all hard-eyed and widely varying brown, down to his tangible high end. cavalry boots.

Archbishop Laud (circa 1635), Anthony van Dyck.

Archbishop Laud (vs. 1635), Anthony van Dyck. Photo: © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Ruskin, in identifying the “insecurity” of Van Dyck’s subjects as their haunting constant, was surely only half right. Especially considering the increasingly cloudy military double portraits of the late 1630s – comrades-in-arms Lords Goring and Newport, brothers-in-law Lords Digby and Bedford, brothers Aubigny Stuart and royal cousin Lords John and Bernard – the overinformed viewer is inclined to overwrite what he sees as a retrospective chronicle of pride, estrangement, futile defeat and death. In fact, it is too fanciful, in the presence of these certainly poignant masterpieces, to attribute to their creator a preponderant and disturbing vatic gift.

But at the same time, the subtlety and sensitivity of Van Dyck’s human analysis cannot easily be dismissed as the slick varnishing service of an art professional and celebrity. The painter demonstrated in his own consummate art the ability to preserve what in different ways Hyde in his prose and Carew in his poetry could also capture – an accurate, or at the very least convincing, version of particular figures and moments. . Here, to me, is a more satisfactory explanation of Hyde’s reluctance to Van Dyck’s atmosphere than mere crude aesthetic indifference; the understandable distrust of the historian with regard to a rival historical power, colouring, even threatening.

Excerpt from the February 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.