Anthony van Dyck is one of the most celebrated and influential portraitists of all time. With his elegant manner and beguiling evocation of a sitter’s inner life, he was the favorite portrait painter of many of the most powerful and interesting figures of the seventeenth century. His sitters were poets, duchesses, painters, and generals — the social and artistic elite of his age — and his unparalleled achievement in portraiture marked a turning point in the history of European painting.
Born in Antwerp in 1599 to a family of patrician merchants, Van Dyck enrolled as an apprentice to the painter Hendrick van Balen in 1610, but Peter Paul Rubens, Flanders’s most acclaimed artist, would exert a far greater influence on his development. By his late teens, the young Van Dyck was already assisting Rubens on large-scale commissions. A brief sojourn in England in the winter of 1620, followed by a stay of roughly six years in Italy, cemented his emergence as a mature painter in his own right. In 1632, Van Dyck was appointed principal painter to Charles I of England. The portraits he produced over the following decade, before his premature death in London in 1641, are among his most admired.
This is the most comprehensive exhibition ever organized on the artist’s activity as a portraitist. Arranged chronologically around the geographic chapters of Van Dyck’s career, the exhibition documents the artist’s development from an ambitious young apprentice into the most sought-after portrait painter in Europe. It also reveals the different kinds of preparatory work that Van Dyck might make, depending on the nature of the commission. Costumes and poses would require only rough studies, while the sitter’s face would be captured in more detail and from life directly on the canvas and brought to a higher finish at a later stage. But portrait prints called for highly finished preparatory drawings and oil studies that are some of Van Dyck’s most compelling works. The large, independent paintings are exhibited in the upstairs galleries, while drawings and oil sketches are on view on this floor. A separate installation in the first floor Cabinet explores the series of prints known as the Iconographie, which ensured the pan-European dissemination of Van Dyck’s portraits and influenced other artists into the twentieth century.
Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Self-Portrait, ca. 1620–21. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York