More than just a beard - Sir Anthony van Dyck

9 December 1641, the Flemish Baroque artist and Charles I court painter Sir Anthony van Dyck died in London at the age of 42.
“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” (Sophia, later Electoress of Hanover)

The mother of all Swagger Portraits:
"Charles I at the Hunt" by Anthony van Dyck (1635)

The devil will find work for idle hands, as the saying goes. And there were a lot of idle hands to be found among van Dyck’s sitters, at least in the opinion of those who sat in the infamous Long Parliament, assembled in the same year the artist died and marking the beginning of the end of his most illustrious patron, King Charles I. A portrait by van Dyck, however, is easily recognised by studying the hands of the sitter. Long, pale hands, spread little fingers, mannered poses, holding flowers, gloves or wearing modestly elegant jewellery, considering Baroque standards. Beautiful, aristocratic hands that never stirred a finger to do honest work. Idle hands. Along with the equally dressy and euphemistic depiction of the rest of the sitter’s likeness, van Dyck had laid the groundwork for the idealised aesthetic style that became the famous trademark of English Art 150 years later, the Grand Manner of Gainsborough and Reynolds, the Swagger Portrait, if done in full-length works. And swaggering or not, it was the already cushioned version of portraiture Rubens’ ex-disciple had done during his stay in Genoa. Heavily influenced by Titian’s colours and forms he did create something along the lines of Baroque demi-gods out of his local patrons, looking down on the viewer in great hauteur, gathered in a scenery that might have been envisioned by Vasari. But by finally becoming King Charles’ court painter, van Dyck toned down to an elegance unusual for the age. Ennobled and landed by the king whose likeness he painted about 40 times along with that of Mrs King, Henrietta Maria, in 30 sittings, not counting those done by his workshop, the monarch’s offspring and that of his courtiers of whom van Dyck certainly was the most formative before and after the outbreak of the Civil War a year after the artist’s death. And still, Rubens, his old master, was considered superior since he painted and excelled in what was regarded as the real Grand Manner, History, mythology and religious motives on large canvasses, done in oil.

Idle Hands - Anthony van Dyck's  portrait of Charles' Queen Henrietta Maria (1632)

He was the star pupil of Rubens’ workshop back home in Antwerp, an acknowledged master at the age of 19 himself and the darling of Flemish society. But they didn’t employ Rubens in the diplomatic service for nothing. While he tolerated the rise of a new star in the Flemish art world, the old master knew that painting the likenesses of the good burghers of Antwerp and becoming something of their mascot while the cash taken from the moneybags allowed for the extravagant lifestyle van Dyck cherished, he would never truly rival the master with something considered inferior art. Van Dyck painted fashionably while Rubens perpetuated himself with the plus-sized sujets of the Grand Manner. A well planned artistic offside trap and, in his vanity, van Dyck fell for it. And if it hadn’t been for King Charles’ patronage, it might have been the end of his career. Thus, van Dyck could not only eternalise an iconic beard style and cavalier costumes but paint a few pieces in the Baroque Grand Manner, even if they were not quite that what he became famous for. Ironically enough, van Dyck was sick unto death already when Rubens died in 1640 and even though the way was free for the arguably greatest Baroque portraitist to step out of the master’s shadow and follow in his footsteps towards the contemporary Grand Manner, alas, it was not to be. While young Rembrandt about the same time managed to step away from being committed to painting the likenesses of the upper crust and become, arguably, "one of the great prophets of civilization", van Dyck’s legacy is usually fixed on being first and foremost that of a dandy, a courtier and a court painter. Although he is, along with Holbein and his contemporary Diego Velázquez, to be considered one of the greatest and most influential of the genre. And nobody else would work out the peculiarities of pre-Civil War cavaliers and their king with a “totally natural look of instinctive sovereignty, in a deliberately informal setting where he strolls so negligently that he seems at first glance nature's gentleman rather than England's King" in a period when the place was yet to become Merry Old England.

Anthony van Dyck, a self-portrait from 1640

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