Perched on one platform, King Charles I; perched on another, the Dutch painter Daniel Mytens; lowered in between them, a canvas some two feet taller than the king, who was reportedly of small stature. If, as an inscription on the finished portrait insists, the likeness was painted ad vivum, then this might have been the way to do it. Beneath the freshly painted lifesize face there would have been elongated expanses of lace, silk, satin and leather for Mytens to burnish, studding each ridge of regal costume with crisp little highlights till he reached the floor a long way below, and then the studio assistants would come along and busk in folds of red velvet and a background balustrade, and behind it some generic, dull afternoon English parkland. By such means ‘His Majesty’s picture drawer’ supplied a lofty ‘whole-length’ – probably intended for the gallery of a German palace in order to seal some alliance – in 1628.
Oddly, the effect is rather moving. Planted on that distended body, the little live head feels tremulous and lonely. Charles confronts his portraitist alertly, but with eyes that can only react. There is no zest, no trust, no joy. Charles was only as old as the century and had succeeded his difficult father three years before: 1628 was the year he lost one brash unpopular mentor – the Duke of Buckingham – only to gain another in Henrietta Maria, the Catholic Frenchwoman with whom he had entered into a dynastic marriage three years earlier. It isn’t hard to read into Mytens’s portrait the clinginess of a man whose pride could not compensate for a painful lack of inner resources. By the same token, it isn’t hard to imagine why such a patron might wish for a less prosaic holder-up of the mirror.
Adjacent to the tall Mytens portrait in Charles I: King and Collector, the Royal Academy’s current exhibition, you meet a broad canvas painted four years later. This tumultuous pictorial poem was delivered by Anthony Van Dyck within a few months of his arrival in London from Antwerp in 1632, and its theme is royal romance. It shows Charles and Henrietta Maria half-length, their hands swapping wreaths – he turning dog-devotedly to his tough, swish and altogether smarter wife, who lets us know with her outward glance that we are likewise her subjects. Their fluctuating satins, the swags of laurel-green curtain behind them and the late June evening clouds all rise and fall to an inner rhythm that is unmistakeably amorous. To view this painting is to get tossed up in that convulsion, but it’s also to recognise that its wellsprings do not belong to you. Love such as this is reserved for higher mortals.
Van Dyck, just a year older than the king and already a famous portraitist, was able to reach through his teacher Rubens’s dreams of Italy to all the art that he himself had seen there, most of all the Titians. A confident reader of souls and moods, he evidently identified a faultline in Charles to which he, another proud and duty-beset man, could relate, and sought to serve him by fixing it. After he settled in London, Van Dyck brought his flair and courtesy to a much larger portrait of the king and queen and their first two children, and this was followed by yet loftier equestrian icons of Charles, along with shimmering images of all his entourage. These masterly fantasias are the centrepieces of the RA’s show. Needless to say, they were bad news for Mytens, who had in fact come up with a version of the wreath-swapping composition that preceded Van Dyck’s. Hopelessly outstaged, he packed his bags in 1634 and went off to deal in pictures in The Hague.
Another odd thing: I find that Mytens’s Charles – a comme il faut rendering of a man cursed with high office – is able to speak to my heart. I find that the Charles of Van Dyck – the consummate sophisticate – makes no claim on my feelings whatsoever. Certainly he cuts a natty figure, with a cavalier hat and a cocked Renaissance elbow in the Hunting Field portrait of 1636 that now belongs to the Louvre. Certainly he sends my eyes upwards, this stiff-backed God-fearer astride a huge horse, his own eyes raised to heaven. But the knowledge that he is due to meet a bad end is entirely untroubling. He seems already on some other plane. The empathy that Van Dyck has lent this disastrously foolish ruler is so fulsome and definitive that it robs me of any urge to follow suit. And I wonder whether this is simply a case of the luck that brought a certain painter and a certain patron together, or whether there is some broader historical pattern into which that particular encounter falls.
The RA’s grand spectacular – which has been excellently organised and which deserves many visits – is a good occasion to raise the question. I come at it ad hominem because from the opening gallery, where you are confronted by portraits of many of the leading players in Charles’s court, this is a character-focused show. But the title of a smaller and similarly well-conceived exhibition, Charles II: Art and Power, concurrently on view at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, points to the underlying issue at stake, whichever Stuart patron we turn to. What – if anything – are pictures supposed to do for the potentate? Is it their role to make us say ‘yes’ to him – or him to say ‘yes’ to himself – or what?
The premise at the Royal Academy is that Charles I, hapless in all else, was notably successful in bringing art of high ambition from the Continent to London, and that it would be fascinating to reassemble the collection – to bring back the Hunting Field from Paris and the wreath-exchangers from Olomouc – which was largely sold off after his beheading in 1649. In the catalogue, the curators, Per Rumberg and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, try to ask what kind of sensibility the exercise reveals. But as they themselves point out, it’s not clear whether the assembled canvases, panels, tapestries, miniatures and marbles can be read as testaments to any cohesive personal vision. It’s intriguing to know that Charles I was fond of Jacopo Bassano’s scenes of rustics driving their flocks: one gets a glimpse of a ruler’s dream of a faraway, poor-but-honest populace. (Rather as Marie-Antoinette liked turning her thoughts to ‘simple’ shepherd life.)
But the ‘King and Collector’ of the exhibition title is perhaps best read as a prince who developed a taste for oils on canvas while visiting the Spanish Habsburg court in a failed bid to secure a wife and who, once crowned in 1625, had the impetus and opportunity to splurge. Cognoscenti and hustlers pushed through the gates that opened up. Snuck into a grand allegory of Peace and War presented to Charles by Rubens after a nine-month visit to London in 1630, we find portraits of the children of Balthasar Gerbier, the fixer who hosted Rubens during his stay and who would go on to schmooze Cromwell, just as he had schmoozed Buckingham. In London there were two men – the architect Inigo Jones and the collector Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel – who could claim to be authorities when it came to art in Italy, but on the ground there they had to deal, as did Charles, with the piratical broker Daniel Nijs. Nijs pounced on the Gonzagas of Mantua when they happened to be short of cash in the late 1620s and came away with far more of their patrimony than anyone in London had meant to acquire. In the history of art’s dislocations, Charles’s reign precedes America’s robber barons and today’s big spenders in the Gulf.
Thanks to Nijs, then, we now have in the RA’s galleries a selection of art for powerful men that stretches back as far as Antonine Rome, since the Gonzagas let him make off with a clutch of antique busts that includes a young Marcus Aurelius. The imperial prince is portrayed staring wistfully away from us into the philosophic beyond: an image of governance as a sedative to the governed that saps their contentious energies, leaving them mild and calm. But the grand, dimly lit gallery that displays those busts is dominated by the stupendous last-minute addition to Nijs’s acquisitions – the nine nine-foot-wide canvases that make up Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar and which are normally housed at Hampton Court Palace. Leaving Mantua, the curators argue, saved them from the Landsknechts who ransacked the Gonzaga palace in an episode of the Thirty Years’ War, though they don’t mention the shippers and bosh restorers who have ravaged the tempera brushwork in the centuries since, with the result that the conqueror’s procession, displayed in half-light above head level, is at once tremendous and truly hard to see.
Mantegna’s panels show a tougher Rome, positivistic rather than spiritualised. Ranked marchers cram into the foreground, raising proclamatory banners and trophies of statues and armoury that mimic their own thumping and thronging, so that everything is manically, materially insistent. And yet Caesar on his chariot doesn’t look our way, and the rhyming forms of the energised celebrants and the lifeless objects they carry end up mocking one another. Mantegna seems to puzzle relentlessly over the question of what power really amounts to when stated with all the worldly, factual fullness he could muster.
When his labours ended with his death in 1506, were Mantegna’s Gonzaga paymasters satisfied? We hardly know. His inventions were never going to be as serviceable as the New Testament dramas drawn by Raphael a decade later for the Pope in Rome, the tapestry cartoons that Charles I ended up buying a century later to serve as templates for English weavers. The paper originals now kept at the V&A were prototypes for four gigantic tapestries, woven at Mortlake in the 1630s, which occupy another of the RA’s galleries. With their mutton-fat sallowness and their variously faded dyes they are not easy to enjoy. Nonetheless a driving clarity of exposition pushes them along, these models of pre-Reformation Christian consensus and academic agreement on what constituted ‘Roman’ style.
As we now feel about the early 20th-century modernists, so Charles’s court must have felt about the High Renaissance: in awe of an optimism still resonant but now irrecoverable. That deference would apply also to the Holbein portraits of the previous century in rich supply at the English court (and hence in this show). The heads recorded by Holbein push out onto the picture plane as if a crisp mould had been taken, and with a kind of imperious urgency, a pressure behind the pressure: the consideration that God has placed this person here only to whisk him away. Strikingly, in a Noli me tangere panel usually tucked away in some royal residence, Holbein reveals himself to be as acute a Christian dramatist as any Italian. The negative space between Holbein’s risen Jesus and his Magdalen is as agonising as that in the National Gallery’s better-known canvas on the same theme by Titian.
Titian is effectively the backbone of Caroline art history, to the extent, that is, that any theme can be said to have informed the big grab that came away with some ingratiating Correggios, some bombastic Palma Giovanes and a sublimely mysterious little Bruegel panel, among so much else. Titian is the grandest of optimists – and, famously, of princes’ go-to men – because whatever he chooses to paint, he suffuses with engaged, warmhearted attention. But this attention is unruly. It submits to no Raphael-like compositional unities. A large-scale Titian Supper at Emmaus that Charles I got from Mantua makes indifferent sense if seen from a distance – it appears to be all tablecloth – but closer up you are captivated by the most serene of Jesuses, the most innkeeperish of innkeepers, by delicious bread rolls, by distant blue Dolomites, by a cat-and-dog fight beneath the table – most of all, by a nonchalant page boy at one end and a miracle-bemused friar at the other, sending you looking every which way. Such an appetite for the visible – prodigious, promiscuous, yet at the same time intimate – takes painting to a kind of limit, and even if for no other reason, everything that followed was bound to be anti-climactic.
Rumberg and Shawe-Taylor characterise the English court consensus, half a century after Titian’s death, as a ‘Carraccian philosophy’. There is actually hardly anything here by Annibale Carracci, the great centre-ground man of 17th-century Italian art, but you sense what his ethos entails when a work steps outside its boundaries – for example, a 1620s head of an old woman, possibly painted by Rembrandt, feels out of place, its rhetoric of the real too aggressive. Nature improved and modulated was the preferred tone. Of course there were several ways to improve on nature. In common with Henrietta Maria, I have a sneaking liking for the adventurous formalism of the elderly Orazio Gentileschi, who, having been recruited from Italy to decorate her personal palace, divided vast canvases into radiant compartments of colour, like some late 20th-century colourist: a recherché taste, I admit. But chiefly this show returns us to the ways of not quite being Titian pursued by the visitors from Antwerp.
Van Dyck is up there with Titian when it comes to page boys – the two who help meld Charles into the landscape in the Hunting Field, for instance – and in fact it is the young and only half-formed who elicit his most piercing images. The two young sons of the assassinated Duke of Buckingham, portrayed in 1635, hover between malice and innocence, while Charles’s own son and eventual heir, commanding a monstrous hound in 1637 with an entourage of sisters, stands out as the most bumptious of besatined brats. (Five years later Van Dyck was dead, aged only 42, and the next court appointee, William Dobson, painted the Prince of Wales with early Civil War alarums behind him: by that time, young Charles Stuart appears irredeemably devious.) Intuition beats cold reasoning: that was what Van Dyck inferred from his study of Titian. But his own intuitions were nervier, more stuttery. His Cupid and Psyche, a full-scale mythological poesia in the manner of the master, falls apart bafflingly, like a particularly disjointed Manet.
Cold reason can have its uses. Opposite Cupid and Psyche in the final gallery at the RA, Rubens, Van Dyck’s old mentor, makes the case for fusing Venetian sensual interest with ‘Roman’ structure. Rubens’s allegories can be laboriously insistent in their flash and didacticism – Peace and War, a gift for Charles I, is a case in point – but the other big piece he presented to the king, Landscape with St George and the Dragon, lifts off into poetry. The fact that the scene is unmistakeably the Thames Valley does a lot of the work, for any history-aware viewer who registers also the dragon-vanquishing knight-cum-king, the fair English rose he’s redeeming, and the notional ‘poor folk’ who look on in hope of salvation, sharing the foreground with a hideous slough of dragon-chewed corpses. This heartfelt conservative fantasia was painted in the early 1630s. Charles’s grapples with the Puritan dragon had a long way to go, and the curators’ placing of the piece next to the exhibition exit is inspired ironical mischief.
Fine art is politically useless, it turns out. The palace art splurge was just one small irritant among the furies Charles I provoked, and no doubt it felt highly satisfying to convert blowsy canvases into funds for the navy in the sale of 1650. To forsake the Royal Academy for Buckingham Palace is to plunge into a bracing cold bath of text. The Queen’s Gallery’s absorbing historical survey of the reign of the second Charles (and that of James II, his brother and successor, no better a politician than their father) opens with the 1649 post-execution proclamation, which still has the power to challenge us: ‘The office of a king is unnecessary, burthensom and dangerous to the liberty, safety and publique interest of the people.’ What follows – through further declarations and broadsides, through both the return of monarchy in 1660 and the successful Dutch invasion of 1688 – takes its cue from that statement: the visual culture of this era now acknowledges that a ‘publique interest’ exists. After Britain’s mid-century traumas, we enter a new world of propaganda and the avowedly mundane. It is striking that the features of the slippery-shrewd Charles II never appear, whatever the artist or the medium, any more prepossessing than those of Richard Nixon trying to wriggle away from the press, and yet if anything this only adds to his political viability. Unlike his father, he’s a big man having fun. Enough of pious heroes!
In a sense there no longer was fine art. Oh, there was a royal collection to be rebuilt – to magnificent effect. At the Queen’s Gallery you can see the extra works Charles II managed to acquire in the process – notably, a genuine Pieter Bruegel Massacre of the Innocents to supplement a version by the artist’s son that Charles I had bought, and a selection from the albums of Leonardo and Holbein drawings that are now the pride of the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. (Also, a haunting circle-of-Bellini Concert, hung rather too high.) But for the up and coming painters of the 1660s and 1670s, the pressure was off. They had stepped out from the ancestor anxieties that shadowed Rubens and Van Dyck to find themselves in a bland and directionless dullsville. Of course patrons still wanted paintings in familiar formats, and the clangorous Antonio Verrio and the affable, mechanical Peter Lely came forward to supply them. The only signs of fresh pictorial intelligence in the exhibition come from two Englishmen, John Michael Wright and John Riley, whose portraits presage the comic tones of the 18th century, and from the Flemish Jacob Huysmans. Huysmans, like Orazio Gentileschi before him, was a protégé of the queen whose waywardness could be indulged: his portrait of Queen Catherine here, preposterous and delicious in its scrumple of purples, browns and silver, lifts Restoration frivolity to delirium.
But there had been a revolution – not just politically but culturally too. A new form of community has coalesced, yabbering and restless. Oil paint was no longer the main event (for most people it never had been, but whatever they felt had been ignored before). There was more excitement in the lush new chiaroscuro images produced by mezzotint, or the ‘Exact Surveigh’ of London’s annihilation by fire in 1666, with every absence itemised, or in the astronomy of Flamsteed. The curators don’t show us the great man-of-many-men who dominates the frontispiece to Leviathan, Hobbes’s 1651 manifesto for ‘sovereign power’: but they show us a ‘leviathan’ from the 1665 volume Micrographia which is no less daunting. Stretched across a double folio book plate in thunderous high relief, here is he who ‘when he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid’: a monster vast, bulbous, bizarre and oblique, for – in the words of the biblical text to which Hobbes had alluded – ‘Who can open the doors of his face?’ Magnified two hundred times, he is the louse in Robert Hooke’s microscope.