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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Anthony van Dyck--Spin Doctor

Charles I with M. de St Antoine, 1633, Anthony van Dyck ,
the first of approximately a dozen portraits of the king.
In the world of politics, one of the most indispensable members of any leader's staff is the public relations advisor, sometimes called the "spin doctor". In England in 1632, the king, Charles I (above), ruled a country gradually drifting toward civil war. The principal cause was the king himself. He insisted upon running the country by himself at a time when the people were starting to yearn for a parliamentary form of government. Meanwhile, the king's supporters, called the Cavaliers, aimed to protect their political and economic dominance of British society. Thus, Charles I had an image problem. He was badly in need of a "spin doctor." So, he imported one from Holland, gave him a gold chain with a matching gold medal, a house in London, made him a knight, and appointed him "principalle Paynter in ordinary to their Majesties." His name was Anthony Van Dyck.

Anthony van Dyck Self-portrait,
age 14.
Van Dyck was born in Antwerp, Holland, in 1599. He was a child prodigy (left), apprenticed to the leading Antwerp painter, Hendrick van Balen at the tender age of eleven. He was accepted as a painting master in the local guild by the age of 19. He visited the England of James I briefly in his early twenties then set sail for Italy where he was heavily influenced by the artist, Titian, and developed a matchless style in portraying aristocrats employing "subtle enhancements" to depict them in a sort of ideal elegance, elevating them above the middle classes and even their peers. He was undoubtedly appreciated by Charles I as a good painter, but above all he was valued for his willingness to shamelessly flatter his subjects in oils. His tall, dark, and handsome king in reality was none of the above, and the lovely, regal queen (below, right) was rather short and thin, also badly in need of an orthodontist.

Princess Henrietta Maria of France,
1632, Anthony van Dyck, the future
Catholic queen of England.
Van Dyck's importance to English art rests on more than his ability to prop up a wobbly, despotic monarchy. Van Dyck filled a vacuum in English art. No English artist came even close to matching his agility with a brush. And while there was a strong tradition of English literary arts, painters were traditionally imported from the mainland to fill the void in the visual arts, going back as far as Henry VIII and his German portrait artist, Hans Holbein. Van Dyck's importance to English art rests in the profound influence he was to have on English painters for the next 150 years. Artists such as Joshua Reynolds and especially Thomas Gainsborough drew heavily upon his style which had totally saturated English tastes for generations. Sir Anthony died in 1641, which was unfortunate for the king. Had his "spin doctor" lived, his employer might have been spared the indignity of "losing his head." Having lost two civil wars, Charles was convicted of high treason and executed in 1649.
A 1649 German print depicting the decapitation of Charles I
(the last English monarch to suffer such a fate) .

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