Van Dyck and Britain, Tate Britain, London

3.00

Marvellous, but not at all moving

It was in the 1620s that artist immigrants came to this country from the Netherlands. Their role was to give brilliant visual definition to an English court that would soon collapse. The painting of royalty before this time had had a strange stiffness and unreality to it. It had specialised in wooden, rather doll-like images. With the advent of Van Dyck and others, a new style, much more dashing, robust, supple and loose was struck, which persisted, in various different manifestations, for centuries. Even John Singer Sargent, as this fascinating exhibition demonstrates, was still painting à la Van Dyck at the beginning of the 20th century.

As with so many talented immigrants, Van Dyck, who had started out as a pupil of Rubens, soon learnt to play the game of being every inch the Englishman. You can see this happening in the gallery, which shows off his great formal royal portraits of King Charles II and his aristocratic retinue. And Charles rewarded him handsomely for his talents. Van Dyck became a courtier, a knight, official court painter, with ready access to the king. He lived in a fine house at Blackfriars. The king had a set of steps built up to the house from the Thames so that he could pay his courtier regular visits. All was set fair in a world of marvels.

And so it seems, in part, when we look at these portraits. The largest and most celebrated shows the king on horseback, bursting through a triumphal arch as if into your own living room. It is a magnificent piece of political theatre. The king looks as kingly as you could ever imagine – a glacial aloofness proclaims the degree to which this armoured warrior is set apart from the mortals who can only stand and stare, awestruck. Look around this room, and you see the same kind of atmosphere. The aristocracy of Britain stand here for our delectation, striking poses, supported and enhanced by objects of huge symbolic significance. You wonder. You marvel.

But, alas, you do not feel a great deal other than sheer admiration at the calculated, studied deployment of so much raw talent. Yes, this is the tragedy of Sir Anthony Van Dyck, and even of those who came after and thirsted to emulate him. There is little intimacy here. There is an atmosphere of glacial, opulent brilliance, but we are not touched as we were, say, by the portraits of Holbein that were exhibited in these very same galleries relatively recently. With Holbein, we are in touch, always, with the vulnerable, beating heart of the person behind all the pomp and the mask of dignity. This is seldom so with Van Dyck. It is the look in the eye that so often defines the nature of the problem. The eye has no wish to engage us at all. It says: I am not you, and you will never be who I am.

There is a tremendous coldness and aloofness in the eyes of so many of Van Dyck’s sitters, that glitter of the eye of the fish on the fishmonger’s slab. And Van Dyck has put it there. His role was to flatter, to raise up, to set apart a court that would be so magnificently aloof that it would soon be on a par with God himself. This king was God in human form. And so the flattery is unrelenting. We see it in the way the women are represented. We know they were not like this in life, that they were rendered shapeless by too much child-bearing and pitted by the pox.

And this is why, finally, Van Dyck fails as a great portraitist. He was too keen to reflect back at his self-satisfied clients the image of themselves they yearned to believe was true. He was, in short, a political animal, serving his master to the best of his tremendous abilities.

To 17 May (020-7887 8888)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on