Van Dyck Portraits Return to the Galleries

Monumental Works Offer a Preview of Next Year’s Exhibition

This article is reprinted from the Fall 2015 issue of the Members’ Magazine.

A new installation in the Frick’s East Gallery is intended to evoke a British country house in its juxtaposition of painting, sculpture, and furniture. Among the highlights of the installation are three portraits of English sitters by Anthony van Dyck that have been in storage for several years: Sir John Suckling; Lady Anne Carey, Later Viscountess Claneboye and Countess of Clanbrassil; andLord and Lady Strange, Later Earl and Countess of Derby, with Their Daughter. The return of these paintings to the galleries offers visitors a preview of next year’s special exhibition Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture (March 2 through June 5, 2016), which will place six of the Frick’s eight portraits by the artist in the context of more than ninety paintings, prints, and drawings from public and private collections around the world. The presentation has provided the occasion for renewed research into the Frick’s holdings by the artist, whose works were particularly sought after by Gilded Age collectors, including Henry Clay Frick.

Van Dyck’s sitters—poets, duchesses, painters, and generals—represent the social and artistic elite of his age, and their fascinating biographies are explored at length in the catalogue that will accompany the exhibition. The Earl and Countess of Derby, for example, whose imposing family portrait currently anchors the far wall of the Eastpainted portrait of Derby Family, ca. 1636. Gallery, were major figures in the tumultuous and tragic conflicts that engulfed the court of Charles I, Van Dyck’s greatest patron. James Stanley, Lord Strange, who succeeded his father as seventh Earl of Derby in 1642, was the scion of an ancient land-owning family in the north of England that also ruled the Isle of Man as a semi-autonomous fiefdom. In 1626, he married Charlotte de La Trémoille, a maternal granddaughter of William of Orange, leader of the Dutch Revolt. The couple’s religious faith and allegiance to the monarchy led both to play an active part in the royalist cause following the outbreak of the English Civil War, in 1642. The earl seized stores of ammunition and laid unsuccessful siege to Manchester, while his wife conducted a famous defense of Lathom House, one of the Stanleys’ country seats, rejecting the terms of surrender with the declaration that she “had not yet forgotten what she owed to the Church of England, to her prince, and to her Lord; and that until she had lost either her honour or her life, she would defend the place.” In the face of parliamentary victories, the earl and countess eventually retreated to the Isle of Man, maintaining it as a royalist bastion even after the execution of Charles I, in 1649. Although Parliament confiscated the earl’s estates and declared him a traitor, he haughtily refused their terms of surrender. He instead returned to England to join the young Charles II’s unsuccessful invasion, and was captured and beheaded on October 15, 1651. The countess lived to see the restoration of the monarchy, using her many connections to seek the restitution of the family’s estates and vengeance against her enemies.

In Van Dyck’s composition, painted probably around 1636, Lord and Lady Strange form an inverted triangle with one of their three daughters, most likely Henrietta Maria, future Countess of Strafford. (Around 1637–38, Van Dyck painted an independent portrait of Henrietta Maria, today in a private collection.) This arrangement of classical simplicity co-exists with a richly symbolic iconographic program. In her costume and the flowers she holds, Lady Strange emulates Van Dyck’s portraits of Queen Henrietta Maria, the namesake of the young girl in the painting. The island in the background likely represents the Isle of Man, while the color of Henrietta Maria’s dress probably alludes to her matrilineal descent from the House of Orange, to this day the royal family of the Netherlands. It is unusual for parents to be depicted with a single daughter instead of their male heir (the Stanleys’ first son had been born in 1628); the girl’s inclusion may emphasize the importance of the family’s descent from the House of Orange through the female line.

During the Restoration, the Derby family portrait entered the collection of Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon and the controversial lord chancellor to Charles II. Lord Clarendon wrote an eyewitness history of the English Civil War, in which he spoke critically of the Earl of Derby. Yet his acquisition of the family portrait bespeaks both his interest in collecting likenesses of historically significant figures and a broader admiration for Van Dyck’s unparalleled achievement in portraiture, which marked a turning pointing in the history of European painting. The Frick Collection’s upcoming exhibition will offer an exciting occasion to reassess this legacy.

East Gallery. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Lord and Lady Strange, Later Earl and Countess of Derby, with Their Daughter, ca. 1636. Oil on canvas. The Frick Collection. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

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