In elegance praise of life as he saw it
Without Anthony Van Dyck, the history of English and American portraiture would be quite different that it is -- not those aspects of it that concern themselves with depth of characterization, or with subtle psychological probing, but the kind of portraiture that frankly and openly sets out to please -- and even to flatter -- the person or persons portrayed.
No one has ever surpassed Van Dyck in the portrayal of elegantly dressed men and women standing or lounging about within elegant surroundings. And the reason, I suspect, is that, while Van Dyck was involved in capturing the spirit and the essence of an aristocratic world, it was the world as he himself preferred it to be, as, in fact, it was to him.If this were not the case, why is there nothing strained or artificial about this world, no sense that it is a pretense or make- believe world, a world within which he had to toady to kings and queens, and to flatter them to make a living?No, to Van Dyck this was reality, this was how God had intended human life on this level to be and to look -- and who was he to question either God or the life style of God's chosen representative on the English throne?
But what Van Dyck saw as only natural for royalty and for the highest strata of English aristocracy of the early 17th century became, in subsequent centuries , the studied and often artificial standard for the type of portraiture in which elegance of style, pose, costuming, and painterly execution was used to give formal pictorial proof of the subject's social, political, or economic standing. In other words, what Van Dyck had done naturally and honestly for royalty in the 17th century, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough did more calculatingly for the English landed gentry and minor aristocracy in the 18th, John Singer Sargent did more flamboyantly for the American business tycoons and their ladies during the Victorian era, and E. Raymond Kinstler does flatteringly for whoever poses for him today.
It's an interesting tradition to trace, especially if we remember that what ended up as a portrait style in which surface slickness takes precedence over human character, began, in the hands of Van Dyck, as a healthy, direct, and essentially virile style.
But how could it have been otherwise? Van Dyck, after all, was a part of the same Flemish tradition that had produced Bruegel and Rubens. And, although Van Dyck had a more "slender" talent and a more temperate personality than did the opulent and robust Rubens, he nevertheless was also a person and a painter who put a healthy good life (and its portrayal) over anything artificial or mannered.
What I'm trying to say is that Van Dyck wasn't "putting on an act" when he painted King Charles as though he were God's gift to England. Nor was he putting style and manner over substance in his other portraits. What we see in these paintings is what Van Dyck saw as the truth, as reality. As far as he was concerned, Charles I wasm God's gift to England -- and man (most particularly if he rules or has power) is nothing if he is not a perfect balance of substance and style, of humanity and manner. To be a king -- or to be an artist -- meant to have style and elegance; there could be no true substance to leadership or to art if either lacked an equivalent degree of high and elegantly sustained style. All we need do to see how fundamental refinement and elegance were to Van Dyck's very being is to take one look at his youthful self-portrait in which this as yet merely promising young man painted himself with all the casual grace and informal manner of the most self-assured of monarchs. To him, Charles I was no more among the select of God than was he himself. As a prince among painters, he was brother to a prince among men.
No, Van Dyck was not a flatterer, but a highly sensitive romantic who saw his 17th- century world through rose-colored glasses. If asked, I suspect he would have described himself as a realist, for he painted what he saw, as things were. And, since elegance, health, and beauty represented to him the pinnacle of human existence -- and since all that was a part of God's overall plan -- it would have been churlish and ill-mannered (to say the least) to have painted the lowly , the unhappy, and the unattractive.
While Van Dyke cannot, in the true sense, be considered really great, we should at least acknowledge that he was amazingly brilliant -- and totally honest. His kings and queens, princes and princesses, dukes, lords, ladies, and gentlemen-at-arms are all real people. Charles I, for all his foppishness and posturing, is an actual person in this portrait, a man whose elegance of manner is largely the result of his and Van Dyck's shared belief in his divinely ordained status.
In my opinion, this is the best portrait Van Dyck painted of Charles. Considering that king's fate, and the damage his death did to the concept of the English monarchy, it is safe to say that this is the last true portrait of an English king. Its royal style befits an absolute monarch but was never quite applicable, in later years, to the portrayal of the lesser nobility, the English landed gentry, or latter-day American business tycoons. Possibly that is why even the best of the more recent painters who tried to emulate Van Dyck's natural elegance have never quite risen above the ra nk of the brilliant virtuosos.