NEW YORK — In the speech from “Hamlet” in which Polonius says, “This above all: To thine own self be true,” the doddering father also gives his son advice on how to dress: “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy / But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy; / For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”
These words were written only a few decades before Anthony van Dyck began making his enormous portraits of sumptuously dressed aristocrats, mainly in England but influential throughout Europe and admired for centuries after his death in 1641. Several of the most impressive of these have been gathered in the exhibition “Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture,” now at the Frick Collection, along with rooms full of drawings, engravings, oil studies and rare examples of the artist’s magnificent etchings.
The modern view of portraiture emphasizes the face as the locus of personality and meaning, and that seems to parallel the technique of artists such as van Dyck, who would paint his subject’s face and then turn over much of the rest of the painting — including that of the clothes — to assistants in his factory-like studio. But even with deference to Polonius’s senility, it’s a worthwhile exercise for contemporary audiences to remember that in the 17th century, it wasn’t a contradiction to celebrate truthfulness to oneself and meticulous attention to dress.
And so, too, it’s a mistake to look at these paintings as though only the face matters, as though only the actual hand of van Dyck limning the visage of the sitter will get you to the essence of the work. In fact, it is the whole package — the dress, the background, the appurtenances of wealth and power — that matters. These were collective works made by the studio, designed to serve an aim far more worldly and social than the mere distillation of personality and character. Van Dyck served his clients by aggrandizing their beauty, power and importance.
So submit, for a moment, to the greater impact of the work, well-described by a 19th-century journalist visiting an 1875 exhibition in London: “Wherever a portrait of Vandyke hangs it presides; wherever his pictures muster they dominate . . . they fill the eye and the mind . . . they bid us pause and meet their gaze.”
That description moves fluidly between psychological detail and the visual impact of lots of canvas covered in lots of paint, eliding what we might consider crucial distinctions between the personality of the subject and the showmanship of the artist.
Van Dyck didn’t invent this tradition of portraiture, but he pursued it brilliantly. Early in his career, in Antwerp, Belgium, he was a principal assistant to Peter Paul Rubens and followed in Rubens’s path, including spending time in Italy, especially Genoa, where he made stunning, full-length portraits of Italian elites. His 1623 painting of Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio (borrowed from the Pitti Palace in Florence) is an early masterpiece — a stern, intelligent-looking man surrounded by acres of crimson and red, draperies and vestments, including a virtuoso rendering of a lacy white “rocchetto,” which covers the prelate’s lap.
But van Dyck’s work is most often associated with his long residence in 1630s England, where he was a fashionable figure and a painter in the court of Charles I. The work takes on a new sheen — some have said a new superficiality — emphasizing personal grace and the supposed carefree lives of the wealthy, and heightening the alluring surface of clothing, jewelry, curtains, cloth and foliage.
The exhibition includes the magnificent 1633 full-length portrait of Charles’s wife, Queen Henrietta, depicted with a monkey and a dwarf, borrowed from Washington’s National Gallery of Art. It also includes a chalk drawing made in preparation for the painting, which gives insight into van Dyck’s process: The drawing renders only a few details and highlights of the folds of Henrietta’s dress, and her basic posture. It may have been made from a separate, anonymous model wearing the dress. It shows nothing of Henrietta’s face, which was likely to have been painted directly by the artist on the canvas.
In an unfinished painting from about 1640, you see the process still underway: Edmund Verney’s face is seen against a gray-blue halo, marking the line between van Dyck’s work and his assistant’s finishing touches.
Like Rubens, van Dyck not only celebrated power but also became enmeshed with it, a wealthy and celebrated cynosure for London’s elite. Several rooms of drawings and works on paper offer a welcome relief from the elegant harangues of his large-scale painted portraits. Two chalk sketches made in preparation for a painting of James Stuart, Duke of Lennox and Richmond, have particular appeal. One gives us only cursory information about James’s face, but a full if minimalist sense of how he is standing and how his clothes fall on his body. The other is a sketch for the greyhound next to him, capturing exquisitely the dog’s musculature, its elegant forepaws and the keen and affectionate gaze of its upturned face.
Another small gallery is devoted to van Dyck’s Iconographie, an extended collection of prints he instigated, documenting his social and intellectual circle, along with prominent political and military leaders and aristocrats. As it evolved and was published in book form, it became a visual who’s who of the 17th century. But the pleasures here have less to do with celebrity than with the astonishing fluency of van Dyck’s preparatory drawings and monochrome “grisaille” paintings, from which engravers made their more leaden, heavy and ponderous reproductions. A self-portrait directly etched by van Dyck and then repurposed by other artists as a frontispiece for bound volumes of the Iconographie is one of the great masterworks on paper of any age. The artist’s hair is abundant, his mustache turned up jauntily, his eyes full of the spirited scrutiny and impatience of a consummate social animal.
The etched self-portrait shows only his face, with a single, sinuous line showing where his clothes meet his neck. Curiously, another print of the image is in the exhibition “Unfinished,” mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the new Met Breuer gallery. In this context, the lack of a body or clothing or anything other than the face seems to connect it to modernist currents. But there is no reason to think of it as intentionally unfinished any more than, say, a functioning radiator is unfinished because it isn’t yet attached to a car.
And so some of the best moments of the Frick Collection’s van Dyck show are those that connect the process to the completed work, without privileging the final product — whether an engraving made by another artist after van Dyck’s original or the heroically scaled hagiographical spectacles of power — from any of their constituent parts.
Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture On view through June 5 at the Frick Collection in New York. For information, visit frick.org.