First brought to London at age 20 by the Marquess of Buckingham, Van Dyck was a stranger in a strange land, much as Charles was a stranger in the land of power and authority. He left London after a short time and spent six transformative years in Italy. He returned in 1631, an established, revered artist. He’d finally emerged from the shadow of Rubens, who was older, immensely distinguished, and also from Antwerp. Charles was convinced that collecting art would compensate for his painfully blatant deficiencies. Together, these two outsiders, the same age, naturally simpatico, developed an avant-garde, opulent iconographic program. Their partnership changed portraiture forever.
But isn’t there a hefty dollop of irony and theatricality in these portraits? Charles was not without self-awareness. His eye for art was sharp, and he understood that image was reality. But what was Charles’s reality? While Rubens’s royal subjects gush with confident, obvious strength, Van Dyck’s depictions of Charles and his family have a touch too much languor. Both artist and king loved sumptuous color and fabric. There’s also a palpable love of dressing up. Do the subjects seem serious and tough? No. Van Dyck’s royals are slim, elongated, and vaguely unworldly, with moving draperies and clouds in the background. We feel the swoosh. Yet a monarchy on the move is also a monarchy that’s not stable.
Both men were what we would call globalist in outlook at a time when “England First” was taking a firm hold. Charles had a Roman Catholic, French wife, and what about that expensive art collection, filled with gaudy Italian pictures? Van Dyck, also Catholic, from the Spanish Netherlands and a painter of images, would have seemed odious to anyone with a Puritan state of mind. He was pan-European. Coming much later, only Sargent and Whistler among Western artists so effortlessly navigated and absorbed so many cultures.
Please read the rest there.
Father Alexander Lucie-Smith comments on the exhibition for The Catholic Herald: