In elegance praise of life as he saw it
"Glorification" is scarcely too strong a word to describe what the Flemish painter, Anthony Van Dyck, did for the image of the English king he served for the last 10 years of his career, from 1632. He elevated the royal figure not in the way earlier Tudor or Jacobean portraitists had done, by depicting the reigning monarch as some stiff, doll-like icon, but (influenced by Titian and Rubens) as a believable, flesh-and-blood individual whose demeanour and nobility , superiority and elegance, distinguish him from lesser beings.
This portrait from the Louvre showing Charles I "a la chasse"m -- "out hunting" -- is particularly ingenious in the ways it builds up the king's person. He is seen as a kind of absolute gentleman. With Charles dismounted instead of grandly in the saddle (as is more usual), his posture in no way indicates involvement with a hunt, and although Van Dyck evidently derived the composition in part from earlier hunting pictures, its more obvious source was a picture of the Emperor Constantine by Rubens. In the Rubens, as in Van Dyck's picture, the powerful horse's head is bowed, and its owner's stature and importance, as he stands on the ground in front of it, are somehow enhanced by the gesture. In the Van Dyck, not only is the king's erectness a fine contrast to this downward curve of his horse's neck, but his stability and stillness display a sublimely calm and indifferent attitude; he seems unaware of the almost undignified movements of both horse and equerry (apparently struggling to restrain the animal) behind him. His own dignity is increased by comparison with their activity. The horse has been variously thought to be "pawing the ground," "licking or rubbing the knee" or even "chasing a fly."
Both the equerry, and the page beyond him, are very clearly servants to the king. Their faces are of a different class from his, their bearing menial: comparing the ways their hands are employed with those of their master is telling. They are also made to appear shorter than Charles, even though the king was in reality no taller than 5 feet, 5. The difference in dress (though the king is not decked out in extraordinary finery) adds its own touch.
Everything in the picture contributes to Charles's prominence. Stems of plants and tree boughs and even an old broken stump help to draw the attention to him. The characteristic hand-on-hip (and how subtly conceived the foreshortened left arm is, so that it projects towards us and doesn't break the excellent outline of his figure); the glove, held with such deliberate casualness; the authority symbolized by the cane, positioned with such grace; the tilted oval of the hat brim; and above all the turn of that superior gaze towards the viewer: all these attributes, aided by the fashionable styling of hair, beard and mustache, amount to an indelible image of courtly ease and impressiveness.
The painter wasn't simply flattering his patron, he was investing him with an almost "divine" -- while at the same time natural and observed -- regal stature. The king's gaze is a kind of command to the artist. He considered himself a king by divine right. There is, one feels, mutual regard in that royal pose: this is the way he wishes to be seen by his subjects, and reciprocally, the favourite artist feels that this is the way a king should look. By nature Charles was sophisticated and had a profound taste for culture and the arts, for masques, music, painting and sculpture. He hunted, as this and another painting by Van Dyck, showing him and his queen leaving for the hunt, indicate, not because of any hot involvement in the chase, but because hunting was considered a noble pastime, so noble, in fact, that it was even compared by writers of the time to the pursuit and destruction of vices by virtue.
Van Dyck was a portrait painter by circumstance rather than choice: he was not only the outstanding pupil of the greatest Baroque painter of northern Europe, Rubens, but also found himself forever preempted by the older master. He not only felt the need to escape Rubens's dominant style, but also to find suitable work in places where Rubens's ubiquitous presence was not so strongly felt. In coming to serve the English court he discovered a large clientele not only thirsty for the supreme glories of the Baroque, with its heightened emotions, its exalted compositional rhythms, its warm revitalization of classical heroism, but one that particularly sought these qualities in portraiture. Charles especially appreciated this, knighting Van Dyck, giving him a pension and having himself, and his wife and family, frequently painted by him.
Later generations have insisted unhistorically on sensing sadness and foreboding in Van Dyck's portraits of Charles, as though his fate at the hands of the regicides was known years before the event. But the face that looks out from the Louvre portrait is pensive and refined in some aesthetic way, rather than severely troubled. The brow hints at an enquiring mind rather than doom. Only by the most sentimental imaginings could this painting be seen as gloomy. Superior, Charles may look, but there is also a play of gentleness, intelligent sensitivity and slight amusement in his features, and his whole stance, far from bending under the weight of some grave premonition, is commanding and self-confident. Neither the subject nor its treatment suggests the slightest shadow of uncertainty.