IV. VANDYCK: 1599–1641

It was just like Rubens to hail and encourage the precocious talent of the young Adonis who joined his studio about 1617. Anthony Vandyck (or Vandyke) had been apprenticed, at the age of eight, to Hendrik van Balen, the teacher of Snyders; at sixteen he had pupils of his own; at nineteen he was a registered master, not so much a pupil of Rubens as a highly valued aide. Rubens rated an early painting by Vandyck as equal in worth to his own Daniel of the same year; he kept for his own collection Vandyck’s Christ Crowned with Thorns and only later, reluctantly, surrendered it to Philip IV for the Escorial.59 In religious pictures Vandyck came too amiably under Rubens’ influence and, lacking the older artist’s vitality of movement and color, fell short of him in all but portraiture. In the early Self-Portrait of 1615 (?)60 he revealed the qualities that were to mark and limit his genius—grace, finesse, and a soft beauty almost unbecoming in a man. His fellow artists were happy to sit for him as an added hedge against oblivion; he made admirable portraits of Snyders,61 Duquesnoy,62 Jan Wildens,63 Jan de Wael,64 Gaspar de Crayer,65 and Marten Pepijn;66 it was one of the many lovable qualities of Vandyck that he liked his rivals. These portraits suggest in Rubens’ studio a pleasant spirit of comradeship not always present in the realm of art.

In 1620 the Earl of Arundel received from Antwerp a letter: “Vandyck lives with Rubens, and his works are being esteemed almost as highly as those of his master.”67 He invited the young artist to England. Vandyck went, received a piddling pension of £100 from James I, painted a few portraits, rebelled at the menial copying required of him by the King, asked for an eight months’ leave of absence, received it, and stretched it to twelve years. At Antwerp he made provision for his mistress and her baby; then he hurried down into Italy (1621).

There for the first time he struck his stride, and he left fine portraits at almost every stop. He pored over the great Venetians, not so much to study their color and massive scope, as Rubens had done, but to ferret out the secrets of poetic portraiture in Giorgione, Titian, and Veronese. He went on to Bologna, Florence, Rome, even to Sicily. At Rome he stayed with Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio and repaid him with a portrait.68 His courtly manners were resented by the Flemish artists who were starving in Italy; they dubbed him “il pittore cavalleresco” and made things so unpleasant that he gladly accompanied Lady Arundel to Turin. He was especially welcomed in Genoa, which remembered Rubens and had heard of Vandyck’s flair for ennobling nobility, making every sitter seem a prince. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a sample of these Genoese aristocrats in The Marchesa Durazzo—sensitive face and (as always in Vandyck) fine hands; the National Gallery in Washington has The Marchesa Balbi, and The Marchesa Grimaldi—proud and pregnant; Berlin and London have other examples; and Genoa managed to keep, in her Palazzo Rosso, The Marchese and Marchesa di Brignole-Sale. When Vandyck returned to Antwerp (1628) his pockets were full and his lace was exquisite.

His native city called him back from nobles to saints. To fit himself for these he repented of his promiscuity, willed his young fortune to two nun sisters, joined the Jesuit Confraternity of the Unmarried, and turned his hand to religious themes. He could not rival Rubens in this field, but he avoided the exuberant master’s exaggerations and carnal effulgence, and gave to his pictures a touch of the elegance he had learned in Italy. Reynolds thought Vandyck’s Crucifixion, in the Mechlin cathedral, one of the world’s greatest paintings; however, that may have been Sir Joshua’s way of repaying a debt.

Vandyck tried his hand at mythological pictures, but though he had pursued many women he was not at home with nudes. His forte was always portraiture, and during these four years in Antwerp he gave some respite from oblivion to Baron Philippe Le Roy and a devoted dog;69 to General Francisco de Moncada and his horse;70 to Count Rhodokanakis,71 looking like Swinburne; to Jean de Montfort,72 looking like Falstaff; and—most beautiful of these Vienna Vandycks, young Rupert, Prince Charming Palatine, soon to be fighting for Charles I in England. Alluring, too, is the portrait of Maria Luisa of Tassis,73 lost in her swelling robes of black satin and white silk. And as good as any of these is Vandyck’s etching of Pieter “Hell” Brueghel (the Younger), an old man still seething with the unspent sap of an amazing dynasty.

Some of these portraits he took with him when Charles I invited him to try England again. Charles, unlike his father, had a sure taste in art. He surmised that this handsome Fleming was just the man to do for him what Velázquez was doing for Philip IV. Vandyck came and transmitted the King, Queen Henrietta Maria, and their children to posterity, indelibly marked with the Vandyck elegance. Most famous of the five royal portraits is the one in the Louvre—the proud incompetent King posing in riding costume, one arm akimbo, sword prominent, jaunty hat, and Vandyke beard; but the tired horse, champing the bit between hunts, can be more easily loved. In Dresden and Turin are rival paintings of Charles’s children, as yet harmless and innocent. Charles was more human than he pretended; his capacity for warm affection showed in his fondness for Vandyck; he knighted him, gave him expensive homes in London and the country, a yearly pension of £200, additional payment for each picture, and every welcome at the court.

The happy artist lived up to his income, loved fine clothing, had his coach-and-four, his thoroughbreds and his mistresses, and filled his homes with music and art. He bettered Rubens’ instruction in delegating work—left the painting of costumes to assistants, painted a portrait in an hour from a sketch made at one sitting, and made hay while the sun played hide-and-seek. Once (story says) Charles I, suffering from parliamentary parsimony, asked the extravagant artist if he knew what it meant to be short of funds. “Yes, Sire,” answered Vandyck. “When one keeps an open table for his friends and an open purse for his mistresses, he soon reaches the bottom of his money chest.”74

If at times he sank into debt, it was not for lack of patronage. Half the English aristocracy waited in turn to receive his imprimatur: James Stuart, Duke of Lennox,75 as handsome as his dog; Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick;76 Lord Derby and his family;77 Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford,78 challenging fate. Poets too had their hour—Carew, Killigrew, Suckling. And finally there was Old Parr,79 claiming to be 150 years old and looking it. Vandyck painted three hundred portraits in England, almost all distinguished by the grace and dignity that he saw in a lord even when they were not there.

His mistress, Margaret Lemon, competed expensively with the aristocracy for his services. The King suggested that marriage would be cheaper, and he helped Vandyck to secure (1639) the hand of Lady Mary Ruthven, of a family famous in Scottish history. The artist painted a handsome picture of his bride,80 but it could not compare with the lovely face he gave himself in the Self-Portrait81 that all the world knows—rich wavy hair, sharp eyes, refined features, scissored beard, gold chain proclaiming his knighthood. Did Vandyck flatter Sir Anthony? If so, it was of no use, for his health, consumed too lavishly, had already begun to fail. Loath to be remembered only for portraits, he asked Charles to let him paint historic scenes on the walls of the banqueting hall at Whitehall, but Charles was living from an empty purse. Vandyck crossed to Paris (1640), hoping for the commission to paint the Grande Galerie of the Louvre; Louis XIII had already chosen Poussin, and when Poussin relinquished the assignment it was too late for Vandyck. He fell ill, rushed back to London to his lying-in wife. He died (1641) eleven days after she gave birth to a daughter. He was not yet forty-two.

He founded no school and left no mark upon Continental art, but in England his influence was overwhelming. Local painters like William Dobson, Robert Walker, and Samuel Cooper made haste to copy his flattering, lucrative style; and when a great burst of portraiture came with Reynolds and Gainsborough, it was the Vandyck legacy that provided schooling and stimulus. Vandyck’s portraits were not profound; he was too hurried to search for the soul, and sometimes he stopped at the face or the beard. The Cavaliers who surrounded Charles I were known for their fine manners, but it is unlikely that so many of them looked like poets; and some of the romance that we find in their brave stand for their King may have come to us from seeing them through Vandyck’s eyes. It would be unfair to expect from so frail and fortunate a youth the robust vitality of Rubens or the de profundis clamavi of Rembrandt; but we shall continue to cherish these Genoese, Flemish and English portraits as bright and “precious minims” in our inheritance.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!