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A Portrait Fit for a King

By Enid Saunders Candlin / August 21, 1989

THIS famous, compelling study of Charles I in three positions never ceases to arrest the viewer with its great brilliancy and artistry. This is no doubt partly because we know that the King was so soon to lose his head. After the execution, it was often said that - based on this picture - Charles had some glimpse of what lay ahead, but that is only the stuff of legend. After the King's death, from the Restoration until the reign of Queen Victoria, prayers were offered in the Church of England for ``King Charles the Martyr.'' Certainly some part of the aura which lingered about this unfortunate man was engendered by the portraits made of him by his court painter, Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Van Dyck painted this particular portrait in 1635 and '36.

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An ``adolescent prodigy,'' Van Dyck (1599-1641) came from the wonderful rich city of Antwerp in Flanders, where he had studied with Rubens. The two artists had very different visions, and after a time in Ruben's workshop the young Van Dyck went to Italy, where he was greatly influenced by what he saw, particularly, it is said, by Titian. During this period of his life he painted a great many religious canvases.

Returning to Antwerp, he soon went on to England at the behest of Charles I, who made him Prinicipal Painter in Ordinary at the Court, bestowing a knighthood upon him. This was in 1632, when the painter was only 33. For the next decade, the last of his life, Van Dyck continued to make portraits of the King, the Queen, and the royal children, as well as the courtiers about them. He created for posterity the images of that era, figures so familiar to us today.

It is hard to believe that the aristocracy of that ill-fated court, or the Stuarts, could have been as beautiful as they appear in these magnificent portraits, but clearly the artist saw them in this idealized light. All his sitters possessed a dignity, and an ease, as well as great elegance, grace, and a certain sweetness - heightened by the melancholy which was then the fashion. He painted them in shining silks and satins, bedecked with jewels, in poses which showed them at their best, and he gave them all beautiful, long hands. His compositions satisfy the eye, and those of two figures are particularly interesting and striking, placed in original positions one to the other.

The idea of three positions of the same subject on one canvas was not unknown - one thinks of De Champaigne's work, the triple busts of Cardinal Richelieu for instance. Van Dyck's portrait was deliberately fashioned to be as three-dimensional as possible, as exact, and as detailed because it was destined to be used by the Italian sculptor Bernini, who was commissioned to make a bust of the King from it. The Roman Catholic Church was then eager to use the King in bringing the Church of England back into the fold, and they wanted such a bust to help make the King's visage more familiar abroad. (Bernini did in fact make the statue, but it was destroyed in a great fire in Whitehall Palace in 1698.)