Mar 222016


Today is the birthday (1599) of Antoon van Dyck  (Sir Anthony van Dyke), a Flemish Baroque artist who became the leading court painter in England, after enjoying great success in Italy and Flanders. He is most famous for his portraits of Charles I of England and his family and court, painted with a relaxed elegance that was to be the dominant influence on English portrait-painting for the next 150 years. He also painted biblical and mythological subjects, displayed outstanding facility as a draughtsman, and was a significant innovator in watercolor and etching.


Van Dyck was born to prosperous parents in Antwerp. His talent was evident very early, and he was studying painting with Hendrick van Balen by 1609, and became an independent painter around 1615, setting up a workshop with his even younger friend Jan Brueghel the Younger. By the age of fifteen he was already a highly accomplished artist, as his Self-portrait, 1613–14, shows. He was admitted to the Antwerp painters’ Guild of Saint Luke as a free master by February 1618. Within a few years he was to be the chief assistant to the dominant master of Antwerp, and the whole of Northern Europe, Peter Paul Rubens, who made much use of sub-contracted artists as well as his own large workshop. His influence on the young artist was immense, and Rubens referred to the 19-year-old van Dyck as “the best of my pupils.” The origins and exact nature of their relationship are unclear; it has been speculated that van Dyck was a pupil of Rubens from about 1613, as even his early work shows little trace of van Balen’s style. At the same time the dominance of Rubens in the small and declining city of Antwerp probably explains why, despite his periodic returns to the city, van Dyck spent most of his career abroad. In 1620, in Rubens’ contract for the major commission for the ceiling of the Carolus Borromeuskerk, the Jesuit church at Antwerp (lost to fire in 1718), van Dyck is specified as one of the “discipelen” who was to execute the paintings to Rubens’ designs.


In 1620, at the instigation of George Villiers, Marquess of Buckingham, van Dyck went to England for the first time where he worked for King James I of England. It was in London in the collection of the Earl of Arundel that he first saw the work of Titian, whose use of color and subtle modeling of form was inspirational, enriching the compositional lessons learned from Rubens.

After about four months he returned to Flanders, but moved on in late 1621 to Italy, where he remained for 6 years, studying the Italian masters and beginning his career as a successful portraitist. He was already presenting himself as a figure of consequence, annoying the rather bohemian Northern artist’s colony in Rome, says Bellori, by appearing with:

.  .  . the pomp of Zeuxis … his behavior was that of a nobleman rather than an ordinary person, and he shone in rich garments; since he was accustomed in the circle of Rubens to noblemen, and being naturally of elevated mind, and anxious to make himself distinguished, he therefore wore—as well as silks—a hat with feathers and brooches, gold chains across his chest, and was accompanied by servants.


He was mostly based in Genoa, although he also traveled extensively to other cities, and stayed for some time in Palermo in Sicily. For the Genoese aristocracy, then in a final flush of prosperity, he developed a full-length portrait style, drawing on Veronese and Titian as well as Rubens’ style from his own period in Genoa, where extremely tall but graceful figures look down on the viewer with great hauteur. In 1627, he went back to Antwerp where he remained for five years, painting more affable portraits which still made his Flemish patrons look as stylish as possible. He was evidently very charming to his patrons, and, like Rubens, well able to mix in aristocratic and court circles, which added to his ability to obtain commissions. By 1630 he was described as the court painter of the Habsburg Governor of Flanders, the Archduchess Isabella. In this period he also produced many religious works, including large altarpieces, and began his printmaking.


King Charles I was the most passionate and generous collector of art among the English monarchs to date, and saw art as a way of promoting his elevated view of the monarchy. In 1628, he bought the fabulous collection that the Gonzagas of Mantua were forced to dispose of because of the Mantuan War of Succession, and he had been trying since his accession in 1625 to bring leading foreign painters to England. In 1626, he was able to persuade Orazio Gentileschi to settle in England, later to be joined by his daughter Artemisia and some of his sons. Rubens was an especial target, who eventually came on a diplomatic mission, which included painting, in 1630, and later supplied more paintings from Antwerp. He was very well-treated during his nine-month visit, during which he was knighted. Charles’s court portraitist, at the time was Daniel Mytens, and unremarkable Dutch painter. Charles was very short (less than 5 feet (1.5 m) tall) and needed a skilled portraitist to enhance his public image.


Van Dyck had remained in touch with the English court, and had helped King Charles’s agents in their search for paintings. He had also sent back some of his own works, including a portrait (1623) of himself with Endymion Porter, one of Charles’s agents, a classical work (Rinaldo and Armida, 1629), and a religious piece for the Queen. He had also painted Charles’s sister, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia in the Hague in 1632. In April that year, van Dyck returned to London, and was taken under the wing of the court immediately, being knighted in July and at the same time receiving a pension of £200 per year, in the grant of which he was described as “principalle Paynter in ordinary to their majesties.” He was well paid for paintings in addition to this, at least in theory, as King Charles did not actually pay his promised pension for five years, and reduced the price of many paintings. Van Dyck was provided with a house on the river at Blackfriars, then just outside the City and hence avoiding the monopoly of the Painters Guild. A suite of rooms in Eltham Palace, no longer used by the Royal family, was also provided as a country retreat. His Blackfriars studio was frequently visited by the King and Queen (later a special causeway was built to ease their access), who hardly sat for another painter while van Dyck lived.

vd17 vd5 vd18

He was an immediate success in England, rapidly painting a large number of portraits of the king and queen Henrietta Maria, as well as their children. Many portraits were produced in several versions, to be sent as diplomatic gifts or given to supporters of the increasingly embattled king. Altogether van Dyck has been estimated to have painted forty portraits of King Charles himself, as well as about thirty of the Queen, nine of Earl of Strafford and multiple ones of other courtiers. He painted many of the court, and also himself and his mistress, Margaret Lemon.

vd8 vd19

In England he developed a version of his style which combined a relaxed elegance and ease with an understated authority in his subjects which was to dominate English portrait-painting to the end of the 18th century. Many of these portraits have a lush landscape background. His portraits of Charles on horseback updated the grandeur of Titian’s Emperor Charles V. Although his portraits have created the classic idea of “Cavalier” style and dress, in fact a majority of his most important patrons in the nobility, such as Lord Wharton and the Earls of Bedford, Northumberland and Pembroke, took the Parliamentarian side in the English Civil War that broke out soon after his death.


The King in Council by letters patent granted Van Dyck denizenship in 1638, and he married Mary, the daughter of Patrick Ruthven, who, although the title was forfeited, styled himself Lord Ruthven. She was a Lady in waiting to the Queen, in 1639-40. This may have been instigated by the King in an attempt to keep van Dyck in England. He had spent most of 1634 in Antwerp, returning the following year, and in 1640–41, as the Civil War loomed, spent several months in Flanders and France.

With the partial exception of Holbein, van Dyck and his contemporary Diego Velázquez were the first painters of pre-eminent talent to work mainly as Court portraitists. At the time in the hierarchy of genres, portrait-painting came well below history painting (which covered religious scenes also), and for most major painters portraits were a relatively small part of their output, in terms of the time spent on them. Rubens for example mostly painted portraits only of his immediate circle, but though he worked for most of the courts of Europe, he avoided exclusive attachment to any of them.

A variety of factors meant that in the 17th century demand for portraits was stronger than for other types of work. Van Dyck tried to persuade Charles to commission him to do a large-scale series of works on the history of the Order of the Garter for the Banqueting House, Whitehall, for which Rubens had earlier done the huge ceiling paintings (sending them from Antwerp).

A sketch for one wall remains, but by 1638 Charles was too short of money to proceed. A list of history paintings produced by van Dyck in England survives, by Bellori, based on information by Sir Kenelm Digby. None of these appear to survive, although the Eros and Psyche done for the King does. But many other works, rather more religious than mythological, do survive. Van Dyck’s portraits were certainly deliberately flattering. When Sophia, later Electoress of Hanover, first met Queen Henrietta Maria, in exile in Holland in 1641, she wrote: “van Dyck’s handsome portraits had given me so fine an idea of the beauty of all English ladies, that I was surprised to find that the Queen, who looked so fine in painting, was a small woman raised up on her chair, with long skinny arms and teeth like defence works projecting from her mouth…”

vd22 vd21

A fairly small number of landscape pen and wash drawings or watercolors made in England played an important part in introducing the Flemish watercolor landscape tradition to England. Some are studies, which reappear in the backgrounds of paintings, but many are signed and dated and were probably regarded as finished works to be given as presents. Several of the most detailed are of Rye, a port for ships to the Continent, suggesting that van Dyck did them casually whilst waiting for wind or tide to improve on his travels.

Early in 1641 he went to Paris, hearing that there was a project for the decoration of the Louvre, and hoping to obtain such a commission as Rubens had secured in the case of the Luxembourg palace. In this endeavor, however, he was frustrated by the work being entrusted to the local painters, Simon Vouet and Nicolas Poussin. In November 1641, broken in health and spirits, Van Dyck returned to London. On 1 Dec. his wife gave birth to a daughter at Blackfriars. On 4 Dec. Van Dyck made a fresh will. On the 9th, the same day that his daughter Justiniana was baptized, Van Dyck died in his house at Blackfriars, aged 42. On the 11th he was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, near the tomb of John of Gaunt, where a monument was erected to his memory; but both grave and monument were destroyed by the great fire in 1666.


Given the interest that Kenelm Digby had in van Dyke’s work, a recipe from The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened (1669) seems in order. I rather like this recipe for capon:

Capon in White-broth.

My Lady of Monmouth boileth a Capon with white broth thus. Make reasonable good broth, with the crag-ends of Necks of Mutton and Veal (of which you must have so much as to be at least three quarts of White-broth in the dish with the Capon, when all is done; else it will not come high enough upon the Capon) Beat a quarter of a pound of blanched Almonds with three or four spoonfuls of Cream, and, if you will, a little Rose water; then add some of your broth to it, so to draw out all their substance, mingling it with the rest of the broth. Boil your Capon in Fair-water by it self; and a Marrow-bone or two by themselves in other water. Likewise some Chess-nuts (in stead of which you may use Pistaccios, or macerated Pine kernels) and in other water some Skirrits or Endive, or Parsley-roots, according to the season. Also plumpsome Raisins of the Sun, and stew some sliced Dates with Sugar and water. When all is ready to joyn, beat two or three New-laid-eggs (whites and all) with some of the White-broth, that must then be boiling, and mingle it with the rest, and let it boil on: and mingle the other prepared things with it, as also a little sliced Oringiado (from which the harp Candy-sugar hath been soaked off with warm-water) or a little peel of Orange (or some Limon Pickled with Sugar and Vinegar, such as serves for Salets) which you throw away, after it hath been a while boiled in it: and put a little Sack to your broth, and some Ambergreece, if your will, and a small portion of Sugar; and last of all, put in the Marrow in lumps that you have knocked out of the boiled bones. Then lay your Capon taken hot from the Liquor, he boiled in, upon sippets and slices of tosted light bread, and pour your broth and mixture upon it, and cover it with another dish, and let all stew together a while; then serve it up. You must remember to season your broth in due time with salt and such spices as you like.


The list of ingredients reads like an inventory of a Stuart pantry. Certainly this is a complex dish, and, in the absence of weights and measures, will require some tinkering to recreate. There’s also the problem of acquiring some of the ingredients. Ambergris – produced in the digestive tract of sperm whales – is hard to come by and very expensive. It’s normally used as a fixative in perfumes, but in the Stuart age it was also used in cooking. Charles II’s favorite dish was reputedly scrambled eggs laced with ambergris. I’ve never eaten it, but based on the smell it probably has a complex musky taste. Skirrets were a favorite root vegetable in Tudor and Stuart times, but have since fallen out of use. I have no idea where one might find them. Fortunately, both are listed as optional (with alternatives suggested). Oringiado is just candied orange peel.

So what you’re looking at is developing a complex broth made from mutton and veal bones, almonds, cream, rose water (optional), raisins, dates, eggs, orange peel, ambergris and sugar, plus unspecified spices.  The capon is simmered in broth, whilst the cook prepares some marrow, skirrets (or parsley root), and chestnuts to serve as a garnish for the capon.  This is not something I have time to experiment with, but one day I might if I desire to surprise my dinner guests – and they are adventurous eaters.