Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Lord Bernard Stuart (1622-1645), after Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1603-65) 

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88)

Portrait of Lord Bernard Stuart (1622-1645), after Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1603-65), Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil and Canvas
18th Century
44 1/2 x 34 inches, (113 x 86.5 cm)
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From the 1770s onwards, after his first exposure to Van Dyck’s work in the country houses of his aristocratic clients, Gainsborough may be said to have been painting with Van Dyck at his elbow. On his deathbed, Gainsborough is reported to have said, “We are all going to heaven, and Van Dyck is of the party”. The influence, both in technique and character, of the Flemish painter wholly pervades Gainsborough’s work, and it is not surprising that he made exact copies of his idol’s works, nor that hitherto unrecognized examples of these pieces are still coming to light. Such is the case with the present portrait, which reproduces one half of Van Dyck’s Portrait of Lords John & Bernard Stuart [National Gallery, London].

Gainsborough’s copies after Van Dyck vary in their approach to the question of repetition, and most are painted with an explicit purpose in mind. The portraits of Lord Bernard Stuart, of which this is perhaps a fourth example, are clearly attempts to learn by imitation, since they explore Van Dyck’s technique with drapery and flesh painting, but never adopt it so wholly as to submerge the characteristic ‘Gainsborough’ dash, which is an immediate tool to attribution.

In neither the present picture, nor the other known versions, Gainsborough does not follow exactly the form of the original. In his treatment of the drapery, for example, he adapts Van Dyck's technique to his own. He creates the bright sheen of the silk by following Van Dyck's large areas of white impasto, but where Van Dyck employs solid lines in the folds, Gainsborough demonstrates his own preference for the more energetic, nervous effect of broken lines, where the light is caught in large, single dashes of pigment. In a departure from his technique of the 1750s for creating the main colour of the drapery, he creates the colour from separate areas of pigment painted directly onto the brown ground.

Van Dyck’s portrait of Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart is still held as one of that artist’s greatest works. It is difficult to suggest another painting that more perfectly encapsulates the qualities that are summed up in the term 'Vandyckian.' It employs contrapposto, attenuation of figure, and shimmering draperies in a dazzling harmony of metallic hues that shine out against a brown background. A suggestion of noble architecture indicates the rank of the sitters, otherwise all is artfully restrained except in the persons of its subject. It is perhaps the best known of Van Dyck's English portraits to a modern audience – more so than those of King Charles – and to Gainsborough, when he encountered it for the first time in the 1760s, the impact of this exercise combining noble profusion with restraint must have been intoxicating.

There has been uncertainty over when in Gainsborough's oeuvre these studies should be dated. During Gainsborough's lifetime Van Dyck’s original portrait was in the collection of the Earl of Darnley at Cobham in Kent. Gainsborough painted the 4th Earl of Darnley in 1785 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). Several commentators, however, have rightly noted that stylistic evidence would suggest an earlier date by some twenty years. The Gainsborough House study of the head of Lord Bernard Stuart has been dated to c.1765, when Gainsborough was painting the portrait of the 1st Earl of Darnley's granddaughter, the Countess of Clanwilliam (Ulster Museum, Belfast).
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