Sincerity and curiosity are virtues in painting; but so are grace, nobility and even the kindness that comes close to being flattery. ‘Van Dyck,’ Roger de Piles noted, ‘took his time to draw a face when it had its best looks on.’ He painted Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria, as a handsome woman – without, it would seem, losing the likeness. Yet her niece, who knew her first from the painting, was surprised to find the Queen ‘a little woman with long, lean arms, crooked shoulders and teeth protruding from her mouth like guns from a fort.’
Van Dyck’s portraits offer ameliorative glosses. He had what all fashionable portrait painters strive for: the ability to make people look as good as they hope they look and maybe do – with a little skill in arrangement and lighting. Not that he always succeeded: the Countess of Sussex complained that he had made her ‘quite out of love with myself, the face so big and so fat that it pleases me not at all’. She even wondered if ‘that man which copies out Van Dycks could not mend the face’.
As for truthfulness, why do we think that the morning-after face in the bathroom mirror is truer than the same face, made ready for the ball? Because we think that sincerity demands the worst possible view, that everyone should be seen without their carapace of chosen expressions and edited gestures. In other words, we are supposed to want people to look ‘natural’. Yet the impression we get from a severe portrait by, say, Rembrandt, and the alternative impression we get from Van Dyck can both be verified in the everyday world. Take hands. Sit watching in the London Underground and you’ll see both Van Dyck’s long, pale ones, fingers separated, a trifle limp at the wrist, hanging loose or resting on a knee, and Rembrandt’s paw-like fists, grasping an arm-rest or closed on themselves. Some people are as conscious of the way they are standing as Van Dyck’s subjects; others seem oblivious of their outward selves. Not that the seen truth is everything: Van Dyck was trying to show what his subjects stood for, not just how they looked.
The Van Dyck exhibition at the Royal Academy (until 10 December) gives us a rare chance to see him whole. We can judge him as a portrait painter without leaving London or even going to the exhibition: the Van Dycks in the National Gallery, the Wallace Collection and the Queen’s Collection which have not been lent for the exhibition are at least as powerful as the portraits that have been. But what we couldn’t otherwise have seen without going abroad is the florid Catholicism of the religious paintings.
Van Dyck was a prodigy. He seems to have entered Rubens’s studio in his late teens and been assisting him in major commissions by the time he was 21. In his admirable introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Christopher Brown writes that ‘it is impossible to over-emphasise the impact of Rubens’s new style on the young Van Dyck’ – the style, that is, of the pictures Rubens painted after his return from Italy in 1608. The demand for Rubens’s work went far beyond what one man on his own could have satisfied, which is why he needed a picture factory and why his collaborators became more or less inspired extensions of his own hand. Van Dyck began his career by learning to be someone else.
Sometimes such teamwork is visible, and jars. When Rubens has done the flesh and someone else the fruit, the different ways of showing bloom and shine may not go together – an over-finished bunch of grapes can have too much of the jam label about it Generally, however, the work of others can be seamlessly incorporated. Before himself going abroad, Van Dyck had access to the digested versions of what Rubens had studied: the language of antique sculpture, of gesture and three-dimensional form; the strong light of Caravaggio, which carries the eye from face to face and limb to limb as surely as a panning camera; Michelangelo’s vision of flesh-made-spirit in bull-thick bodies which just fall short of muscle-bound caricature.
Van Dyck did not have Rubens’s intellectual scope but he was a wonderful pupil, and he tempered what he learned in Rubens’s studio with what he saw in the work of other painters – Titian in particular. He could imitate Rubens’s style so completely that it is sometimes difficult to decide who painted a given passage, but the style he developed on his own is technically and emotionally distinct. In Rubens, bodies twist and fall in three-dimensional knots and torrents, as though striving to become sculpture. In Van Dyck’s religious and narrative pictures the energy flows balletically in two dimensions – they aspire to the state of mirrors or projections. Van Dyck’s portraits tend to be poetic, decorous, sometimes melancholy; Rubens’s more often suggest pleasure and appetite. Even Rubens allowed that Van Dyck was his equal as a painter of faces; other contemporaries said that only Titian was better.
When you look at the portrait of Cornelius van der Geest, painted when Van Dyck was 21, you can see why Rubens might have been jealous. The old man’s skin, his slightly rheumy eye and the white hair of his beard are wonderfully realised. Rubens tends to make use of a repertoire of effective conventions (the marks for an eyelid, folds in the skin, cheeks and so on) and unites them in a springy dance of brushstrokes. Van Dyck observes finer detail, gives more information about a particular face. He trades some of the autonomous life of the brushwork for a more informative way of handling paint.
A successful Court painter could not afford to hang about. Van Dyck is reckoned to have painted 400 portraits during his seven and a half years in England – more than one a week. He painted portraits in Antwerp, Genoa, Rome, Sicily and London. The English court suited him particularly well. Giovanni Bellori, his first biographer, wrote in 1672:
when Rubens left, Van Dyck succeeded him in royal favour, and at once began to accumulate the rewards and resources he needed to maintain his ostentatious style and splendid way of life. However, he spent his new riches liberally, since his house was frequented by the highest nobility, following the lead of the King, who used to visit him and took pleasure in watching him paint and spending time with him. In magnificence he rivalled Parrhasius, keeping servants, carriages, horses, musicians, singers and clowns, who entertained all the dignitaries, knights and ladies who visited his house every day to have their portraits painted. Moreover, he had lavish dishes prepared for them at his table, at the cost of thirty scudi a day ... he employed men and women who served as models for the portraits of the lords and ladies, since, having rendered the likeness of the face, he would then complete the remainder from these live models.
Regarding his method of painting, he was in the habit of working without a break and when he made portraits he would begin them in the morning to gain time, and, without interrupting his work, would keep his sitters with him over lunch. Even though they might be dignitaries or great ladies, they came there willingly as though for pleasure, attracted by the variety of entertainment. After his meal he would return to the picture, or also do two in a day, adding the final retouching later. This was his usual practice for portraits; if he was making history paintings, he estimated how much work he could carry out in a day and did no more.
Some of the history paintings are tremendous performances, so gripped are the characters by spiritual ecstasy. But their pleasures are the explicable ones of Baroque painting. In so far as they make you curious about how much was Van Dyck’s own invention and how much other people’s, they send you back by clear routes to other artists’ paintings. The portraits are a little different. Here, a received form – the equestrian portrait, say, a pose derived from Titian – will have an emotional resonance of its own. Take the picture (now in the Louvre) of Charles I standing beside the lowered head of his horse. Was this almost companionable way of depicting the King Van Dyck’s own idea, or did he strike a deal with the King to trade authority for humanity? There’s no way of knowing. He did paint equestrian portraits in the tradition which has the rider dominating the animal by putting it through riding school exercises – where control of the horse seems to stand for control of the state; but even the portraits of Charles which show him mounted are more elegant than martial. Portraits in which he wears armour or robes of state suggest fancy dress. Van Dyck was undoubtedly close to the King – a special jetty was built at his house at Blackfriars so that Charles could come and go discreetly. He created characters for Charles, Strafford and other players in the royal drama to play: fantasy – the King portrayed as favourite of the gods – served to illustrate policy. The handsome portrait of Venetia, Lady Digby as Prudence is in quite a different style from that of the defeated figures of Lust (a crumpled, fallen Cupid) and Deceit (Janus-faced and gypsy-dark) which cower at her side. The picture was a piece of posthumous reparation, Sir Kenelm Digby wanting to clear his late wife of her reputation for promiscuity.
The social relations between real and symbolic figures in a painting are always delicate. Donors in religious pictures, for example, shown wearing their Sunday clothes and faces, choose to ignore the fact that the saints have misread the invitation and come to the party wearing long swathes of material in very bright colours. The things that Van Dyck bought with the handsome fees he was paid (he left little money, having, says Bellori, ‘spent everything on living magnificently, more like a prince than a painter’) included a wonderful collection of paintings – 17 by Titian alone, according to the inventory taken after his death; but there were doubless studio props and drapes as well. The Countess of Sussex was able to find compensation for the fact that Van Dyck had made her face too fat. She wrote to Sir Ralph Verney: ‘I am glad you have got home my picture, but I doubt he hath neither made it leaner nor fairer, but rich in jewels I am sure, but It is no great matter for another age to think me richer than I was.’ We need to be careful in deciding what meanings the clothes in his paintings may have, for they were not always, or not solely, the sitter’s contribution.
There is evidence that Van Dyck did not plan to stay in England for ever (he travelled to Paris in 1640 in the hope of getting the commission to decorate the principal galleries of the Louvre from Louis XIII). He didn’t even speak the language very well. But in his English portraits, his international style gains from what you might call the local climate. Compared with the millstone ruffs and black clothes of the early Antwerp portraits, we now get gold chains and clothes of many colours. Even the Earl of Arundel’s studied sobriety of dress and the mourning clothes of Thomas Killigrew fail to disguise an ease that is not to be found in the black-dressed merchants and clerics of Genoa or Antwerp. In his catalogue essay, Malcolm Rogers quotes William Sanderson, his near-contemporary, as saying that Van Dyck was the first painter that ‘e’er put ladies’ dress into a careless romance’, and goes on to quote Herrick’s ‘Whenas in silks my Julia Goes’. As well as ease and sweet disorder there is a taste for the genuinely exotic. The Earl of Denbigh appears in the red, gold-striped pyjama suit he had brought back from his Eastern travels, along with an Indian page who is pointing at a parrot.
Van Dyck’s sitters could be confident about the way he would present them to the world. Their relations with each other in the double portraits – of which he painted many – are more awkward. Such paintings present a problem in social geometry. If both parties are shown in profile they can look straight at each other and relate conversationally. But in full or three-quarter views, which tell more, the subjects must be shown as they turn away from one another towards the viewer/painter. They may look slyly at one another out of the corner of their eyes, which is comical, or ignore each other and look out of the picture at you (as Van Dyck and Endymion Porter do in the oval double portrait from the Prado). Alternatively, one of them may look at you, and the other at his (or her) partner or at some unspecified point outside the picture, as in the portrait of Lord Digby and Lord Russell – either way, the missed glances hint at boredom.
Maybe the reason so many conversations in the movies take place on the front seats of cars is that it is one of the few situations in which a couple having a conversation can look natural without ever making eye contact. The driver looks at the road, the other party at the driver. This is more or less the solution Van Dyck uses in the equestrian portrait of Charles I with Monsieur de St Antoine. The King looks down at you (the road, as it were) from his horse: M. de St Antoine looks up and back at him. This picture – and the movies too – confirm the observation of psychologists that in any confrontation it is the subservient party who tries to make eye-contact with the dominant one.
Because we are good at working out what people are looking at, missed glances project unease. In narrative pictures where minor characters can show their backs the problem arises less often, but you only have to compare the catalogue illustrations of Titian’s Tribute Money in the National Gallery with Van Dyck’s identical (reversed) composition which faces it, to see how tiny differences in the degree to which the questioning Pharisee turns towards Christ, and in the direction of Christ’s gaze, transform Titian’s live drama into Van Dyck’s static tableau. In Titian’s The Three Ages of Man, which is reproduced as a comparison for Van Dyck’s picture of the same subject, the shepherd and shepherdess are in profile; she leans on his knee and looks into his eyes. They engage each other’s attention. The woman in Van Dyck’s painting, turned so as not to be quite in profile, just misses catching the soldier’s eye, and you think she may be blind. In Cupid and Psyche, the most perfect of his narrative pictures, the problem does not arise; Cupid, like us, is looking at Psyche’s body as much as her face, and she, of course, is asleep. So is Rinaldo in Rinaldo and Arminda, which Van Dyck painted ten years earlier – a splendid, altogether more operatic picture, with much foreshortening and billowing drapery, but extracting drama out of a relationship which is, at the moment shown, not reciprocated.
It is hard to catch Van Dyck’s own eye in all this. Some 17th and early 18th-century painters from the Low Countries and France leave windows open on themselves, as in Rubens’s drawings of his family, Rembrandt’s of his neighbours, Watteau’s of his friends. Van Dyck could as easily be a Spaniard or an Italian when it comes to pictorial unbuttoning. An exception is the portrait of his friend, the art dealer François Langlois, dressed as a Savoyard in orange-red with a soft hat, half-smiling as he plays the bagpipes. It seems affectionate – and affection is not one of the emotions Van Dyck usually brings to mind. It makes you wonder what he would have painted had he pursued his luxurious way of life less single-mindedly.
His charm and conversation were praised by his contemporaries, and he was certainly pretty if the self-portraits are true, but it is hard to put together a personality for him. The quotations from Bellori given in the catalogue amount to a success story in which the hero is more or less a cipher. He married Mary Ruthven, a Scottish lady-in-waiting, in 1639, two years before he died. Earlier on he had had a mistress, Margaret Lemon – she may have been the model for Psyche and for a portrait of a girl as Erminia. If she was, she was dark, with large eyes and a challenging look. According to Wenceslaus Hollar, she was a dangerous woman and a ‘demon of jealousy’ who caused ‘terrible scenes when ladies of the court sat to Van Dyck without a chaper-one’. Once, it’s said, she tried to bite off his thumb to stop him ever painting again, and it could well be that the great painter, so very obviously a driven man, was a very irritating one, too.
But that is idle speculation. We don’t know enough to say. Paintings, which might seem to leave evidence of painters’ personalities, are, in truth, untranslatable documents. Anecdotal scraps tell us more than acres of canvas about what a painter was like. As there are very few letters, and very few first-hand accounts of Van Dyck, Robin Blake’s ‘Life’ is inevitably more a ‘Times’. The fact that Van Dyck’s mother died when he was only seven is significant, but to go beyond generalities about early bereavement and look for its results in Van Dyck’s paintings of mother and child is to separate an actor’s emotions from those of the characters he plays. It is a poor basis for speculation; at best it offers a sentimental interpretation of a picture and is a line of thinking which takes paintings to be illustrations of artists’ souls. Blake, who tries to get more of Van Dyck’s character from the paintings than they can reliably give, is truly illuminating when he describes a given place at a given time and looks there for the source of decisions. There is, for example, the question why Van Dyck did not settle in England in 1621. Blake’s picture of the sleazy English court during James I’s last years (did the King make a pass at Van Dyck? he wonders) and the suggestion that the Vangoose mocked by Jonson in his Masque of Augurs was a jibe at Van Dyck, makes plausible his suggestion that Van Dyck went back to Antwerp because he found London nasty and didn’t like the way he was being treated.
Above all one is curious about people. Portraits may hide as much as they show – and not be the worse for it – but a warts-and-all account in words of just who it was who looked like that lets you better understand the game of showing and hiding. If you are honest you will sometimes say: ‘well, who would have guessed?’ Sometimes you can fit the story to the picture. The biography of Abbe Scaglia confirms the impression his portrait gives that he was every inch the Protestant fantasy of the subtle Catholic diplomat. But you might not guess that he was a sick man.
The puzzle about what lies behind a face, which so much of our mental machinery seems to be set up to solve, does not arise when you look at a caricature – the interpretation has been made for you. But you have to work out a response to the stranger in the picture, just as you must to the stranger at the door – even sometimes the stranger in the mirror. One goes on looking at Van Dyck’s portraits because, just as we are uncertain but curious about what he was like, so (as well as being charmed, awe-struck and overwhelmed by what he could do) we are curious and uncertain about them.