Eye Contact

Peter Campbell

  • Anthony van Dyck 1599-1641 by Christopher Brown and Hans Vlieghe
    Royal Academy, 360 pp, £22.50, May 1999, ISBN 0 8478 2196 X
  • Anthony van Dyck: A Life, 1599-1641 by Robin Blake
    Constable, 435 pp, £25.00, August 1999, ISBN 0 09 479720 X

Sincerity and curiosity are virtues in painting; but so are grace, nobility and even the kindness that comes close to being flattery. ‘Van Dyck,’ Roger de Piles noted, ‘took his time to draw a face when it had its best looks on.’ He painted Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria, as a handsome woman – without, it would seem, losing the likeness. Yet her niece, who knew her first from the painting, was surprised to find the Queen ‘a little woman with long, lean arms, crooked shoulders and teeth protruding from her mouth like guns from a fort.’

Van Dyck’s portraits offer ameliorative glosses. He had what all fashionable portrait painters strive for: the ability to make people look as good as they hope they look and maybe do – with a little skill in arrangement and lighting. Not that he always succeeded: the Countess of Sussex complained that he had made her ‘quite out of love with myself, the face so big and so fat that it pleases me not at all’. She even wondered if ‘that man which copies out Van Dycks could not mend the face’.

As for truthfulness, why do we think that the morning-after face in the bathroom mirror is truer than the same face, made ready for the ball? Because we think that sincerity demands the worst possible view, that everyone should be seen without their carapace of chosen expressions and edited gestures. In other words, we are supposed to want people to look ‘natural’. Yet the impression we get from a severe portrait by, say, Rembrandt, and the alternative impression we get from Van Dyck can both be verified in the everyday world. Take hands. Sit watching in the London Underground and you’ll see both Van Dyck’s long, pale ones, fingers separated, a trifle limp at the wrist, hanging loose or resting on a knee, and Rembrandt’s paw-like fists, grasping an arm-rest or closed on themselves. Some people are as conscious of the way they are standing as Van Dyck’s subjects; others seem oblivious of their outward selves. Not that the seen truth is everything: Van Dyck was trying to show what his subjects stood for, not just how they looked.

The Van Dyck exhibition at the Royal Academy (until 10 December) gives us a rare chance to see him whole. We can judge him as a portrait painter without leaving London or even going to the exhibition: the Van Dycks in the National Gallery, the Wallace Collection and the Queen’s Collection which have not been lent for the exhibition are at least as powerful as the portraits that have been. But what we couldn’t otherwise have seen without going abroad is the florid Catholicism of the religious paintings.

Van Dyck was a prodigy. He seems to have entered Rubens’s studio in his late teens and been assisting him in major commissions by the time he was 21. In his admirable introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Christopher Brown writes that ‘it is impossible to over-emphasise the impact of Rubens’s new style on the young Van Dyck’ – the style, that is, of the pictures Rubens painted after his return from Italy in 1608. The demand for Rubens’s work went far beyond what one man on his own could have satisfied, which is why he needed a picture factory and why his collaborators became more or less inspired extensions of his own hand. Van Dyck began his career by learning to be someone else.

Sometimes such teamwork is visible, and jars. When Rubens has done the flesh and someone else the fruit, the different ways of showing bloom and shine may not go together – an over-finished bunch of grapes can have too much of the jam label about it Generally, however, the work of others can be seamlessly incorporated. Before himself going abroad, Van Dyck had access to the digested versions of what Rubens had studied: the language of antique sculpture, of gesture and three-dimensional form; the strong light of Caravaggio, which carries the eye from face to face and limb to limb as surely as a panning camera; Michelangelo’s vision of flesh-made-spirit in bull-thick bodies which just fall short of muscle-bound caricature.

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