Antoon van Dyck, or as we better know him, Anthony van Dyck, was born in Antwerp in 1599. He came from a wealthy Flemish family, his father being an affluent silk merchant, and whether it was because of his prosperous upbringing or his inherent artistic talent, even at a young age it was recorded that he was, besides being very gifted, an extremely precocious boy. He studied art under Hendrick van Balen, the Flemish Baroque painter, who also tutored up and coming artists such as Frans Snyders and Jan and Peter Bruegel the Younger. He started producing quality works of art at the age of fifteen and three years later was accepted into the Guild of St Luke, the Antwerp painter’s guild as a free master. At the age of eighteen he became chief assistant to the great Rubens whom he stayed with for three years during which time he continued the output of his own paintings and slowly but surely enhanced his own reputation. Rubens said on a number of occasions that van Dyck was the most talented artist he had ever trained.
In 1620 he was invited to England to work for the then monarch King James I of England (King James VI of Scotland), who had been told that the young van Dyck was in the employment of the master, Peter Paul Rubens, and that the young man’s talent and works were exceptional and were almost on par with the great master himself. During his stay in London, van Dyck came across works of Titian which were part of the art collection of the Earl of Arundel, one of the king’s courtiers. Van Dyck remained in London for six months before returning home. At the end of 1621 he moved to Italy and stayed there for six years studying the works of the Italian masters whilst visiting many of the Italian art capitals such as Rome and Genoa. It was whilst in Italy that van Dyck developed and perfected his skill as a portraitist.
In 1627 van Dyck once again returned to his birthplace, Antwerp but was only to stay there for one year before accepting an invitation to return to London by the new English monarch, Charles I, who had acceded to the throne two years earlier. King Charles was one of the greatest art collectors of all the English monarchs amassing an unbelievable collection of works of the great masters, some of which had been purchased and brought to England by his agents with the help of van Dyck, who also sent the monarch some of his own paintings. Charles loved art and would invite the artists such as Gentileschi and Rubens to his court where he would commission new works.
In 1632 van Dyck returned to London where he joined the royal court, received a house as well as a country retreat, a monetary retainer and was knighted. He soon became the favourite painter of King Charles and his wife Queen Henrietta Maria and over the years carried out numerous portraits of the couple and their family and it is around this time, actually 1637, that van Dyck completed today’s featured painting.
My Daily Art Display today is Sir Anthony van Dycks’ painting entitled The Five Eldest Children of Charles I. When one looks at a painting of a male sitter one often describes it as a handsome and debonair portrayal of a man and if the sitter is a female, one often terms it as a beautiful and attractive portrayal of the lady. However, the portraits of children and animals can often be termed differently and one of the favourite descriptions is “cute”, and this certainly sums up today’s portrayal of the monarch’s children and their large pet dog.
Queen Henrietta Maria, a catholic, was the youngest daughter of King Henry IV of France and she gave birth to nine children, two of which were stillborn. At the time of van Dyck’s painting the royal couple had five children, Charles, Mary, James, Elizabeth and Anne. Today’s painting is hailed as one of the greatest group portraits of all time. The children are portrayed as children and not as was often the norm, tiny adults. We have in the centre with his arm resting on the family pet mastiff, Charles who would become King Charles II. Van Dyck has surprisingly afforded him an unusual air of authority for one so young. He looks out at us with a thoughtful countenance. The very large dog sitting calmly by his side adds even more gravitas to the young boy, the future King Charles II.
To his right we see two children standing side on to us. Their look is somewhat shy and demure as they gaze out at us. The taller of the two on the far left is the six year old Mary, Princess Royal, whilst although looking like her little sister, is in fact her younger brother James who would later become King James II of England.
On the opposite side of the painting we see a young girl cradling a baby, with the small spaniel at her feet. This is the two year old Princess Elizabeth and the baby, who had been born that year, is Princess Anne. The round, somewhat chubby rosy cheeks of the pair, contrasts well with their linen white caps and the string of pearls around Elizabeth’s neck. Tragically neither Elizabeth nor Anne lived long. Elizabeth, after the fall from power of her father during the two Civil Wars, spent her last eight years held as a prisoner of Parliament. She died of tuberculosis aged 14, a year after her father’s execution. Her mother always maintained that she had died of a broken heart caused by the untimely death of her father. Baby Anne died aged 3, and like her sister, the cause of death was tuberculosis.
Above the seated girl we have an exquisite still life behind which we see a far-off landscape which was often a trademark of van Dyck’s portraits. There is a tranquil elegance about this painting. The children seem contented, even happy and thus it is sad to realise that twelve years on from the completion of this family portrait, their happy family life would be shattered with the premature death of Elizabeth and the execution for treason of their father, Charles I.
So what do you think of the painting? The nineteenth-century Scottish portrait painter Sir David Wilkie was in no doubt with regards its quality describing it thus:
“……the simplicity of inexperience shows them in most engaging contrast with the power of their rank and station, and like the infantas of Velasquez, unite all the demure stateliness of the court, with the perfect artlessness of childhood….”