Remarkably tender for its time

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THE painter who brought to portraiture in the 17th century a new grandeur and elevation, investing his aristocratic sitters with a superior elegance as if they were all much taller and breathed a more rarefied air than other men and women, also brought to the painting of small children a tender reality and understanding that was unprecedented. As painter to the English King Charles I, the Antwerp-born Van Dyck fixed for the following centuries the image of the Caroline court, of Charles himself, and of his Roman Catholic Queen, Henrietta Maria, as cultured, graceful, sensitive, and somehow brittle. In short, he found in this court a vehicle for the expression of many of his own characteristics.

But the elevation of his subjects did not turn them into mere icons and symbols of royalty. Unlike previous court painters, he also depicted them as flesh-and-blood humans. He was aware of their feelings as ordinary (or extraordinary) human beings, in spite of all the necessary -- and often brilliantly painted -- finery.

The closest parallel, perhaps, can be seen in Vel'azquez's paintings at the Spanish court. Vel'azquez was the exact contemporary of Van Dyck, though his career lasted longer. Both artists were able to paint recognizable likenesses of their patrons, and this accuracy resulted in images that are movingly paradoxical. Idealization contrasts with realism, sophistication with peculiar innocence; and the not particularly imposing, or even beautiful, features of king or queen can actually hint an inadeq uacy to perform their roles. Their too-vulnerable humanness seems almost overpowered by the virtually divine claims and potency of kingship. While Van Dyck was perfectly able to capture the fierce assurance and adulthood of some of his patrons, he also observed that aristocrats could more or less be children prematurely expected to act, behave -- and dress -- with a presumption of deific sovereignty.

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So when he came to paint the actual royal children, it is hardly to be expected that he would see or present them as little adults. Interestingly, though, he seems to have run into trouble with King Charles himself because of this. In 1635, he made a portrait of the three eldest royal children for their mother to send to her elder sister. The Queen is reported as saying that the King was displeased with Van Dyck for painting their children in the clothes of infants. Particularly, it seems, he must

have wanted the five-year-old Prince of Wales (the future Charles II) out of petticoats and in doublet and breeches -- as Van Dyck was to paint him in his next picture of the three children the same year. The prince's younger brother, however, still remained unbreeched.

Perhaps it is, in fact, thanks to the King's dissatisfaction with the earlier picture that we have a succession of Van Dycks of the royal children: The Prince of Wales, now a small boy taught to hold himself every inch a future monarch, stands alone in armor in a painting of 1637; then, in the most ambitious group portrait of all (also of 1637) he commands center stage, the other children round him, his hand resting somewhat grandly on the head of an enormous mastiff.

It is for this splendid painting, ``The Five Eldest Children of Charles I,'' that the oil study on the opposite page was made. In addition to the three children already portrayed, here were the two youngest of the family in 1637, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Anne. (The later inscription calling the baby ``Henry Duke of Gloucester'' is a mistake.) In the final painting, which can be seen at Windsor Castle, the smallness of the two little princesses is emphasized in contrast with the mastiff (the baby reaches out as though wanting to touch it) and with a big table behind them.

One of the enchantments of these Van Dyck pictures of the royal children is that they are, unlike some of his other family portraits, without adults. The world he enters, therefore, belongs to the children, and it is obvious that the artist has considerable sympathy for this world. He understands, for instance, the hierarchy of ages. He grasps the separate individuality of each child. With the youngest princesses he observes (and this sketch, unusual in his English oeuvre for being in oil, is added proof, if needed, that he did observe them firsthand) the gentle intuitive motherliness of the older one, and the dependence (on whoever chooses to put an arm around her) of the younger. Its truth of description does not seem sentimentalized; but for its time it was surely remarkably tender.

This was not, of course, the first occasion Van Dyck had been called on to paint a baby. Earlier family portraits had developed his feeling for infants, and as a religious painter he had depicted the baby Jesus in several paintings of the Virgin Mother and Child. In these he was influenced not only by the older Antwerp master, Rubens, but also, doubtless, by Raphael and Titian.

There was mutual admiration between Rubens and Van Dyck, and it seems that the younger artist was periodically of service to the older. But their difference in temperament was considerable. In the painting of children, for instance, Rubens brought out vitality and bloom: His babies are energetic putti or robust cherubs derived from Italian Renaissance mythologies. Van Dyck's portrayal of babies, however, possesses both delicacy and firm reality.

One feels that Rubens probably enjoyed babies enormously. Van Dyck, on the other hand, found his affection roused by them. The sketch of the two princesses (on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, from the British Rail Fund Works of Art Collection) shows this affection through line, texture, and tone. With wonderful economy of means, the two related heads seem merely touched onto the surface of the canvas. Nothing is overstated, but nothing is uncertain or tentat ive: So completely realized are they that the artist transferred them with almost no alteration to the finished work.

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