Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King Charles I (1600-49) 

Studio of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

Portrait of King Charles I (1600-49), Studio of Sir Anthony Van Dyck
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Oil on canvas
17th Century
63.5 x 52 cm (25 x 20 ½ inches).
 
Provenance:
English Private Collection
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This impressively martial portrait of Charles I is a high quality variant of the earliest likeness of the king painted by Van Dyck in 1632. The original portrait is the large group showing Charles and Henrietta Maria with their two eldest children, a work known as the ‘Great Peece’ and which is still in the Royal Collection. The ‘Great Peece’ became one of the defining images of Charles and the Stuart dynasty, and until that point the art-loving king had never been painted by anyone of Van Dyck’s calibre. Therefore, as the first likeness of the king by the newly-arrived court artist, demand for replicas of all sizes must have been considerable. The present portrait, as a work painted in Van Dyck’s studio under the artist’s supervision, would have formed part of the range of portraits produced for Charles and his court for various political and diplomatic reasons. The reverse of the present painting bears an old (probably Danish) inscription ‘Carl d.1te af Engeland/A: van Dyck’, which may suggest that it was commissioned to be sent overseas, as does its size.

Charles I was passionate about art, and was the first British monarch to collect art for its own sake. Ever since his youthful (and comically unsuccessful) mission to Spain in 1623 to secure the marriage of the King of Spain’s daughter, Charles had dreamed of turning his court into a rival of the great visual displays of Madrid, sparkling with pictures by Titian and Velasquez, as part of a wishful civilising exercise on his disparate and badly administered kingdom. His first route towards that end was to spend lavishly on collections of Old Masters, most notably the Mantua collection secured for about £15,000 in 1628 with the help of Van Dyck’s friend Nicholas Lanier, the ‘Master of the King’s Musick’.(1) Such was Charles’ enthusiasm for buying art that he would often be present at the moment of delivery, insisting that crates delivered at night were immediately unpacked, and playing games of attribution by candlelight.(2)

But it was not enough for Charles to be surrounded by great art; he wanted to be in it. Charles, more than any other English king, fell into the trap of believing that the image of power equated to its reality. The tradition is that when Charles saw Van Dyck’s c.1628 portrait of Nicholas Lanier [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] he demanded that the artist be ‘sent for over into England.’(3) Getting Van Dyck to England, however, was no easy task; he needed the inducements of an expensive annual retainer, a studio by the Thames, a large gold chain and a knighthood. There are sixteen recorded varying portrait types or compositions of Charles by Van Dyck and seventeen of his wife, Henrietta Maria. The fact that the majority of these are known both in multiple versions by Van Dyck himself and studio replicas gives a glimpse of how reliant on his talented studio assistants Van Dyck often was.

On one level, the need to circulate Charles I’s image by the best artist possible was obvious – power increases with recognition. In 1504 Henry VII, the first English king to understand the importance of his own image, had the masterstroke of putting his recognisable portrait on the coinage, so that his face was in the pocket and purse of all his subjects. Other images had to visually impress viewers with the majesty and power of the monarch – some who saw Holbein’s 1537 life-size mural of Henry VIII and his family in Whitehall ‘felt abashed, annihilated’, such was its scale and realism.(4)

The main objective of a royal portraitist was essentially the same in Van Dyck’s era as it had been in Holbein’s time. But by Van Dyck’s day, royal portraiture assumed a more complex significance. This was particularly the case for those portraits commissioned for a royal palace. Van Dyck’s Great Peece must have been commissioned to rival Holbein’s mural and with the same desire to impress (it too was hung at Whitehall). The Great Peece was begun within weeks of Van Dyck’s arrival in London in June 1632 and the first payment for it was authorised by the king on 8th August 1632 at £100 (for one ‘greate peece of Or royall self, Consort and children’).(5) It was the first time an English monarch had been depicted in a semi-domestic setting, seated and surrounded by dogs. In Charles’ eyes it was the perfect image of the contented royal family and thus, by extension, a contented nation and yet outside the royal palace, royal portraits could assume a subtly different purpose. In private houses, for example, the display of a portrait of Charles I could not only demonstrate the owner’s loyalty to the king but also that they were a person of importance, just as the discreet display of a signed photograph of The Queen or President Obama might today.

Inevitably, therefore, there was a considerable demand for replicas of Van Dyck’s royal portraits. The present portrait of Charles I is a fine example of a studio production of a portrait of Charles I from relatively early in Van Dyck’s English career. The head is derived from the Great Peece, but the body shows the king in armour, allowing for a more militaristic look than the relative informality of the original. Intriguingly, Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles in the Great Peece differs subtly from his later portraits of Charles which are more familiar to us today. In Van Dyck’s subsequent portraits, such as the celebrated ‘Charles I in three Positions’ [Royal Collection], Charles’ features are slightly fuller, the jaw and lower lip less prominent and he appears less drawn, perhaps as a result of the tendency to flatter which Van Dyck is regularly accused.

Unfortunately, we cannot know which of Van Dyck’s assistants was responsible for the portrait. Unlike Rubens’ studio, we know comparatively little of those Van Dyck employed or what they did. Van Dyck’s studio in Blackfriars lay outside the remit of the City of London and its strict rules on artists and their apprentices. Those whom we believe were employed at some stage in England by Van Dyck include Jan Van Belcamp, Jean de Reyn, David Beek, James Gandy, Henry Stone and Remigius van Leemput. Although Van Dyck came to rely more heavily on his studio towards the end of his life, it is known that, like almost all great artists of the period, he used assistants to some degree from the very beginning of his career as an independently successful artist. In about 1618 he established his own workshop in Antwerp and it is known that he employed studio assistants even then.(6)

(1) The final figure paid for the collection is uncertain. See for example Ian Spink, ‘Lanier in Italy’, in Music & Letters, Vol. 40, no. 3, (July, 1959), pp.242-252.
(2) Charles Carlton, Charles I the Personal Monarch, 2nd edn., (London, 1995), pp.143-144
(3) This phrase comes from a later account noted by Charles Beale after a conversation with Sir Peter Lely and apparently first published by Horace Walpole. See William Hookham Carpenter, ‘Pictorial Notices, consisting of a Memoir of Sir Anthony Van Dyck’, (London, 1844), p.23.
(4) Xanthe Brooke and David Crombie, Henry VIII Revealed, Holbein’s Portrait and its Legacy, exhibition catalogue, January-March 2003, (London, 2003), p.27.
(5) Karen Hearn ed., Van Dyck and Britain, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, February-May 2009, (London, 2009), p.68.
(6) Susan Barnes, Nora De Poorter, Oliver Millar and Horst Vey, Van Dyck – A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings (Yale, New Haven and London, 2004), p.2.
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