A Portrait Fit for a King
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.
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.)
In the picture, the King's head is set off by a dramatic sky, against which the three aspects are sharply delineated. The central view shows him dressed in red, on the left he is depicted in profile, and dressed in black, and on the right is a three-quarter's position, where he wears a shade of lilac or puce, and holds a cloak of the same tone. They all have a lace collar, and wear the blue ribbon of the Order of the Garter.
A wonderful tour-de-force of sheer painting, the portrait also reveals some of the artist's insight into the character of his sitter, though of course here one must allow for the flattery given a King. It is possible to read in this visage a certain anxiety and care, but other traits are much more evident - his grace, his poise, and confidence. These three heads, seen thus together, project an image of power - which was indeed false, as history would confirm.
Charles's ``sad grandeur'' has been described as ``the most fashionable of Caroline moods, that of shadowed melancholy.'' He has a distant look, his eyes heavy-lidded though brilliant, his hair falls in that studied insouciance then affected by ``superior persons'' as ``superior attitude.'' It was the period when young men wore black and affected a ``slight negligence'' in their dress as they pursued their tragic meditations. The poets have made all this clear to us. Soon any affectation connected with this pose would disappear, discarded in the terrible times which lay ahead.
Melancholy or not, the picture has, like all Van Dyck's, a springing vitality, an entity of its own. The artist's genius was so great that he painted vast numbers of people who probably did not share the King's tastes in art, or want such luscious, ``sweet'' pictures.
But naturally the royal taste was one the court followed - and that style was in a sense the model for the fashionable portrait for centuries, showing elegant, aristocratic persons, who exist, or seem to exist, above the ordinary problems of our dusty world.
Van Dyck did a number of self-portraits, showing his own handsome looks. He was, it would seem, rather vain - his short stature is not apparent in these studies, but we do see his piercing eyes, the analytical eye of the artistic genius, and his long, beautiful hands. One of these pictures is in the Hermitage in Leningrad, one in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum.
Van Dyck found himself in very extravagant company, and he spent more than his means allowed, and fell ill, we are told, through his dissipation. He died at 41, prolific till the end, never ceasing to paint. He was anxious because of the times - he knew that circle where he had thrived was breaking up - the King had left London, the Queen had gone to France, and Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Stafford (whom he had painted many times) had lost his head on the scaffold.
This picture belongs to Queen Elizabeth II, and is presently exhibited in the beautiful gallery, once the chapel, of Buckingham Palace.
Seeing it there, one realizes to how great a degree this young Flemish painter has become representative of the English scene, so much so that many think of him as English. Troubles or no, the country took him to its heart, and did so, much more widely with the Restoration, with an attachment which has proved lasting and strong.