Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Children of Charles I (1600-49) Late Seventeenth Century

School of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

The Children of Charles I (1600-49), School of Sir Anthony Van Dyck
Oil and Canvas
17th Century
64 Ĺ x 79 ľ ins, (163.8 x 201.3cm)
Private Collection, USA.
Van Dyckís 1637 portrait of Charles Iís children became one of the most iconic pictures of the seventeenth century, particularly amongst Royalist supporters. Here, the future Charles II is placed centre stage and guarded by - but also mastering with his authority - an enormous mastiff. To his left are Princess Mary and James, Duke of York, while to the right are Princesses Elizabeth and Anne. Charles is given an appropriately grown-up stance and demeanour with his adult costume, but his siblings retain their youthful charm and sensitivity. The portrait conveys the message of healthy and happy brood of royal heirs.

Charles I was the first English king to seek to portray the royal family as just that, a family, rather than individual figures of power. The idea was to present Charles as the happy monarch ruling a happy nation, with both the private family and public realm united in contentedness. Van Dyck was central to this message, and his first commission for Charles was the Great Peece at Whitehall, in which Charles and his Queen are seen sitting, with the young Prince of Wales and Princess Mary, and surrounded by dogs in a setting of unprecedented domesticity. The giant scale of the Great Peece must have been conceived as a visual riposte to Holbeinís forbidding Henry VIII and his family, also hanging at Whitehall. Of course, as so often with Charles I, image and reality were rarely the same.

Van Dyckís original painting of the five children cost Charles I £100 (although the artist had originally asked for £200), and is still in the Royal Collection. A study for the heads of princesses Elizabeth and Anne is in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. There was great demand for replicas of Van Dyckís royal portraits both during and after the Civil War. They became symbols of political affiliation to the Royalist cause, and after the Restoration could be displayed as symbols of loyalty for Charles II. This rarer full-scale version was most likely have been painted in in the 1660s or 70s. The composition seen here, showing the future James II as well as Charles II, would have allowed its owner to demonstrate support for both the new King, and the next one.

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