Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

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In Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture, the largest special exhibition ever mounted at the Frick Collection, towering portraits look very much at home on the museum’s velvet-covered walls. Van Dyck’s elegantly colored canvases in elaborately carved frames flatter the who’s who of 17th century European high society. Visitors to this exhibit have the opportunity to assess the legacy of an artist who used his extraordinary ability to achieve fame and fortune as leading court painter to Charles I.

Born to a wealthy family in Antwerp in 1599, van Dyck started his art career at just ten years old as an apprentice for a local Baroque painter, before leaving to join Peter Paul Rubens’s workshop. Rubens called young van Dyck “the best of my pupils.”

“Self-Portrait,” ca. 1613-1615, is proof enough of the young Fleming’s prodigious talent. In this small canvas, a redheaded adolescent looks out over his right shoulder. The earliest of the three self-portraits opening the exhibit in the Frick’s downstairs galleries, van Dyck depicted himself with soft facial features, conveying wide-eyed youth. But his shirt collar is described with a slash of white paint, an early example of bravura.

According to van Dyck’s original biographer, Giovan Pietro Bellori, Rubens encouraged his assistant to focus on portraiture. By the time he was twenty years old, portraits by Rubens’s protégé were in demand. The Frick’s own paintings of Frans Snyders and wife, Margareta de Vos, both circa 1620, are “universally ranked among van Dyck’s earliest masterpieces,” curator Adam Eaker writes in the exhibition catalog. Biographer Lionel Cust says Rubens “extolled his assistant so highly as a portrait-painter that many visitors to Rubens’s studio were moved to have their portraits taken by van Dyck.”

A brief stint in England was followed by a seven-year sojourn to Italy. From his home base in Genoa, van Dyck painted portraits of Italian nobility, absorbed the influence of 16th century Venetian masters (particularly Titian) and studied portrait paintings by Rubens, who had been in Genoa twenty years earlier.

A striking portrait of Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio, wearing a ruby-colored gown and a white lace smock, is on loan here from Palazzo Pitti. A harmony of reds, from vermillion to crimson, the cardinal, portrayed with delicate facial features and heavy eyelids, sits between a red velvet curtain and a red tablecloth. “With its extraordinary combination of magnificence and introspective psychology,” exhibition organizers call this canvas “one of the painter’s masterpieces.”

According to Bellori, van Dyck was unpopular with his Flemish colleagues while in Italy. Van Dyck’s airs put off fellow artists. “By nature grand and eager to become famous,” Bellori says, “in addition to his fine clothes, he adorned his head with plumes and hatbands, wore gold chains crossed on his chest, and kept a retinue of servants.”

The painter returned to Antwerp before settling permanently in London in 1632. Perhaps the greatest royal patron of the arts, Charles I spent lavishly on painting and sculpture, considering it his kingly duty to build a first-rate collection. Italian Renaissance painting was all the rage at the time and Charles I bought works by Titian, Raphael and Mantegna. In Elizabeth Godfey’s book, “Social Life Under the Stuarts,” the author reports “the collecting craze was, however, a thing for the great ones of the land alone to indulge in. It needed a long purse, and was beyond the reach of the average well-to-do Englishman; but for him there was the special fashion of the age—his own or his wife’s portrait by the king’s prime favourite, van Dyck.”

Van Dyck synthesized Venetian school painting with Flemish realism, portraying his British patrons as long-fingered aristocrats lost in thought. Knighted by Charles I, the king provided his court painter with a pension, a house, a luxurious studio in Blackfriars and, Cust writes, “enough commissions to keep him in England from 1632 until his death in 1640.”

Nicknamed “the beauty shop” (Bellori says van Dyck “gave a certain nobility to the heads and grace to the poses”), his studio was frequented by the highest levels of society, including the king, who “took pleasure in watching him paint and passing time with him.” And van Dyck entertained his guests with “servants, carriages, horses, players and jesters.” Godfrey says, “the whole fashionable world flocked to ‘the Beauty Shop’ at Eltham to be immortalised.”

A shining example of embellishment is van Dyck’s full-length portrait, “John Suckling,” ca. 1638. Wall text describes the Cavalier gentleman as a “spendthrift, lothario, and gambler” but also “an accomplished poet and playwright.” Van Dyck painted Sir Suckling paging through Shakespeare’s First Folio, wearing fine silk and looking pensively into the distance.

But exhibit organizers here have gone to great lengths to point out van Dyck’s contribution to art history is his working method. Pairing paintings with preparatory drawings, van Dyck painted faces directly from life. After working out compositions with loose, energetic chalk drawings, a number of which are on display in the downstairs galleries, van Dyck invited his subject to pose. He would paint the heads himself, then dress studio models in borrowed outfits. With the help of assistants, van Dyck completed “the remainder from these live models,” Bellori reports.

Van Dyck’s methods influenced a generation of British portraitists, including Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence and Joshua Reynolds. Later, Rodin declared John Singer Sargent “the van Dyck of our times.” But, perhaps because a society painter profits by flattering his patrons, van Dyck’s canvases do not achieve the depth of feeling of contemporaries Rembrandt or Velázquez. The fascinating question this exhibit raises is: did van Dyck forsake a larger mark on art history for fame and fortune in his own lifetime?

Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture on view through June 5, 2016, Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, 212-288-0700, www.frick.org

More information about Xico Greenwald’s work can be found at xicogreenwald.com

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