Sir Anthony Van Dyck has been dead 350 years, but his elegance, his hauteur, has yet to be forgiven. He was a wonderful painter -- his talent was prodigious, his influence enormous. Yet a certain deep-set disapproval -- partially deserved -- still clouds his reputation.
Good plain folk distrust him still -- the way they might disdain a hairdresser of genius, or a temperamental chef. Fawningly, fastidiously, he reliably provided the rulers he served with chic, superior pictures. Rich people for centuries have coveted Van Dyck's aristocratic portraits, in which they see themselves, but he made other sorts of paintings too -- fantastical depictions of smiling winged cupids, saints and naked nymphs -- which rich people like less.
The portraits he is known for, and his invented visions, are displayed in profusion in the huge Van Dyck retrospective, opening today at the National Gallery of Art. Nearly everyone who sees it will marvel at his mastery. Not all will feel exalted. The courtiers he portrayed -- these princes on their fine white steeds, these delicate lords and ladies -- gaze out at us in slight distaste, as if we were ill-clad, ill-bred. Van Dyck shares their prideful ease. He is of their world, not of ours.
We might like him more had his soul been troubled, his brushwork less graceful, or his spirit more subversive. He was perhaps a bit too suave.
Something in his suavity offends the myth of genius. Most of us expect the greatest of great painters to forge their art in struggle, to wrestle with the gods, as did Michelangelo, or with rejection, like Van Gogh. Even as a child Van Dyck was an art star. He was acknowledged as a master before he was 19. His prices were high. He lived his life in luxury. In Genoa, in Antwerp (where he was born into the merchant class on March 22, 1599) and especially in London, the great sought his pictures -- and his charming company. Even monarchs paid him court. King Charles I of England, that stammering connoisseur, dipped into the treasury to have a landing dock and special stairs built at Van Dyck's studio at Blackfriars to ease the royal passage to his entertainments. No wonder other painters glared at him with envy. Van Dyck in his twenties kept half a dozen servants. He set the finest table. His retinue included musicians, singers, coachmen and, for amusement, dwarfs. He affected furs and feathers and heavy golden chains.
Levelers might growl, but art history in general finds reasons to excuse such obeisance to the rich. Velazquez was in some ways a courtly propagandist too, and so was Leonardo. But these men had a style utterly their own. Van Dyck's was less original. His manner was developed in grateful confrontation with a pair of supreme painters. Both were bigger men than he.
The first of his great guides was Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1641), the diplomat and linguist, connoisseur and courtier, in whose Antwerp studio young Van Dyck learned his craft. His second guide was Titian, the wonderful Venetian, whose pictures Van Dyck copied, and later on collected, with fervent adoration.
The opulence of Rubens -- his acres of soft, scented flesh, his gold-and-crimson curtains, his gods that look like men and his men that look like gods -- may be a bit too rich for most modern eyes. It was a bit too rich for Van Dyck too. Titian's grand example taught him to subdue such Rubenesque rhetoric. The Saint Jerome of Rubens is a kind of muscled demigod; that of young Van Dyck is an old, wrinkled man.
What Van Dyck owes to Rubens (their works have been for centuries mistaken for each other's) has long been apparent. But the young man's debts to Titian have never been as clear as they are today in their stunning, magisterial, simultaneous display in the West Building. "Titian: Prince of Painters" includes 70 of his paintings. More than 100 pictures by Van Dyck are on view just down the hall.
Those two different painters, Titian and Van Dyck, one Venetian, one Flemish, seem, in this conjunction, allies of a sort. Both of them were Catholics who painted for the church. Both of them were knighted by the rulers whom they served. Both of them had talents that astonished all who knew them. But they are opposites as well.
Titian is among the greatest painters of all time. His incomparable spirit is fearsome and devout, scholarly and wild, inventive and prophetic, and it's all these things at once. Exploring his exhibit is like riding through a time storm. Centuries zoom by. His art seems to start in the Middle Ages, and then rush you on to 1955. His greatest pictures are his last ones. Titian, in old age, wielded his brush with deeply private passion and odd, breath-stopping violence. Van Dyck never went so far.
The slashing strokes, the turmoil, in his "Betrayal of Christ" (1620) prove that he could paint with rule-defying vigor, but on the whole he preferred not to. His pictures, next to Titian's, seem excessively polite. Titian roars and Van Dyck purrs. Titian was a prince, Van Dyck was a princeling.
When Titian died, of plague, in Venice in 1576, he may well have been 90. Van Dyck did not live long enough to do as he damned pleased. He was a child prodigy. There is a portrait here he painted when he was 14. He died at 42. He never lost his mildness. He sometimes jokes in quiet ways, and sometimes plays a sexy tune, but he never shocks.
And yet it might be argued that it was the younger, lesser man who would have the sharpest influence on painting yet to come. Or at least on portraiture.
Van Dyck crystallized a fashion. Most high, Grand Manner portraits -- Gainsborough's, Sir Joshua Reynolds's and even Karsh of Ottowa's -- bow deeply to Van Dyck's. His sitters do not smile, they don't stand stiffly at attention. Instead they have about them a greyhound's wiry nervousness and a cool, distinguished grace. Their few accompanying props -- a curtain of deep velvet, a fluted marble column -- evoke contemplative dignity. Van Dyck's sitters are not excessively idealized. If they walked into the room you'd know them at a glance. The one thing they aren't is common. Their outfits are amazing. They wear cuffs of lace and fine, brocaded garments, sometimes teasingly unbuttoned in studied nonchalance. Their wealth is great, their breeding pure. Their pages, and their dogs, gaze at them admiringly, adoringly. We are meant to do the same.
No patron better understood the painter's useful talents than King Charles I of England, who gave Van Dyck his knighthood, and his kingdomwide renown. The continental, Catholic, French-speaking queen of England -- she was Louis XIII's sister -- approved the painter too.
With the aid of his assistants, Van Dyck soon was mass-producing portraits of his sovereigns. One of the most moving, "Charles I in Three Positions" (borrowed for this show from Queen Elizabeth's collection), was painted as a model for a sculpture to be carved in Rome by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the finest sculptor of the day. That remarkable commission required special papal dispensation, as had the royal marriage. Henrietta Maria prayed each day for the conversion of her husband. Her Catholicism added to the ruin of their reign.
The headsman's ax that ended it, and Cromwell's iconoclastic, fervently Protestant revolution, dropped another sort of blade on Van Dyck's English reputation.
His Roman Catholic paintings, and paganist mythologies, were briskly set aside. The 19th-century rich who built America's museums would prove similarly dismissive of his Counter Reformation altarpieces. Andrew Mellon, for example, would not have thought of buying Van Dyck's nymphs and saints. America's museums long have shown his portraits. Here, for once, we see him whole.
This Van Dyck is more inventive, and more passionate, than is generally acknowledged. His "Lamentation" (1636) is piercing in its piety, his "Time Clipping Cupid's Wings" (1630-32) is wonderfully theatrical, his heroes pant for love.
Van Dyck's haughty sitters do not pay the slightest heed to such wild goings-on. Yet were these nobles less reserved they might tell us wondrous stories. Think what we might learn from Sir Robert Shirley, who poses proudly in his turban, with scimitar and bow. (Sir Robert, though an Englishman, somehow managed to become the Persian Shah's ambassador to the pope in Rome.) And here, in brooding thought, and in black robes worked with gold, is Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, who was confined for 16 years in the Tower of London. (His circumstances there were not all that rough -- he had a score of servants with him and a large suite of rooms, where "The Wizard Earl" frequently entertained assorted learned guests.)
A character more curious still is Sir Jeffrey Hudson, who appears beside the queen with a monkey on his shoulder. (When Sir Jeffrey, a dwarf, joined the service of the duke of Buckingham, he was only 18 inches high. He first met England's queen when, at a dinner in her honor, he was "served up to the table in a Cold pye." Later he would fight a duel, in which he killed Capt. Crofts, and be captured by Turkish pirates and sold "a slave to Barbary.")
Nobles waited patiently for their brisk one-hour sessions in Van Dyck's portrait studio (he'd paint their visages from life, their clothing from the garments they were asked to leave behind). These worthies, and their noble peers from Genoa and Antwerp, must have been elegant companions. Van Dyck liked their company, perhaps a bit too much.
A bit of grit or spice -- a touch of Velazquez's candor or Andy Warhol's naughtiness -- and a little less of John Singer Sargent's obsequiousness might have helped his reputation. Had he dared put in his portraits the feelings that lend fire to his rich religious pictures, his high rank in the pantheon of 17th-century masters would be higher still.
The twin exhibits at gallery will not soon be surpassed. The Van Dyck retrospective was selected, with great care, by Arthur Wheelock, the gallery's curator of northern baroque painting, and Susan J. Barnes, once of the gallery's Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts, now of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Both of them write vividly and learnedly. The catalogue is fine. The show, though aided by more than 50 lenders from around the world, was mounted by the gallery without corporate support. It closes Feb. 24.