Sir Anthony van Dyck

Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599 – 1641) was a Flemish Baroque artist who became a leading painter at the English court. His relaxed elegancy and ease combined with the understated authority in the subject in front of a lush landscape influenced English portrait-painting for the next 150 years. He also was an important innovator in watercolor and etching.

Born as Antoon van Dyck in Antwerp to prosperous parents, his artistic talent showed early. He set up workshop with his even younger friend Jan Brueghel the Younger at age 16. Peter Paul Rubens, who heavily leaned on sub-contractors and his own workshop to finish his large commissions, called van Dyck the best of his pupils. Yet, Antwerp was declining in importance and so, van Dyck spent most of his career abroad.

What the influence of Rubens was for van Dyck’s composition skills, the influence of Titian was for his use of colors and subtle modeling of form. He studied him and other masters well during his six years in Italy where he became known for his extravagancy in clothing and demeanor as much as for his full-length portrait style in which extremely large but graceful figures look down on the viewer.

Back in Antwerp he charmed his way through aristocratic and court circles to commissions – portraits as well as religious work. And he stayed in touch with the English court which he had visited in 1620 already. King Charles I was a passionate collector of art and artists. He had knighted Rubens and had hoped for him to stay in London, but Rubens returned to Antwerp not inclined to attach himself to one court exclusively.

Van Dyck came and stayed (though his stay was repeatedly interrupted by travels to Flanders and France). He became the principle court portraitist creating the classic idea of Cavalier style and dress. He and his exact contemporary Diego Velasquez were the first highly talented artists who worked mainly as court portraitist though portraits came well below history paintings in the contemporary list of genre importance. But out of several reasons the demand of portraits was high in the 17th century, a man needed to make a living esp. when the man was van Dyck and loved the sweet things life had to offer more than he should, and van Dyck’s portraits flattered. Yet, it isn’t that van Dyck didn’t try to convince Charles I to commission him for large history paintings. It was however, that the king shortly before the English Civil War was simply short of money. So, van Dyck was stuck with the portraits.

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