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Visual Art: The first royal spin-doctor

Van Dyck Royal Academy, London
If the votes are ever cast as to this country's greatest cultural achievements, the notion of the English gentleman and his lady companion should do well. From the portraits of Gainsborough, Reynolds and Sargent to James Bond films and the Country Life set, that elusive touch of class seems to lie in the twist of the wrist and the precise height of an expressive eyebrow. For the visual characteristics of class we can go back to Anthony Van Dyck and his comprehensive makeover of the court of Charles I. The artist would have had little time for such claims to fame however, for, as this exhibition reveals, his energy and ambition went into great altarpieces and paintings of mythological subjects inspired by the master- pieces of Titian.

A full survey exhibition on Van Dyck (1599-1641) is a rare event. The last one in England was 100 years ago, and this show, organised by his native city of Antwerp and the Royal Academy, marks the 400th anniversary of his birth. To those who think they know Van Dyck from his many portraits in country houses and museums, this show will come as a revelation. Over 100 paintings have been assembled, two-thirds from abroad, and the overall impression is of dazzling colour and powerful compositions. Like some crowded cosmopolitan party, the power-brokers of 17th-century Europe and their families are vying for our attention, casting enigmatic glances between the swooning martyrs and cavorting nymphs.

The exhibition reintroduces us to Van Dyck as a European artist, speaking in French or Italian rather than Flemish or broken English, painting the bankers of Genoa for their new palaces and the burghers of Antwerp, as well as working in Rome, Palermo, The Hague, Paris and Brussels. Charles I looked on enviously from offshore Europe, wondering how to woo the young genius across the Channel. This is the Van Dyck whose studio became an artist's court, where sitters could expect to be entertained by musicians and clowns, given lunch and a chance to admire the artist's gallery of Titians, all while under the painter's working gaze. As master of a highly productive commercial studio he could afford to live like a prince, spending what he earned, with one ear always open to new opportunities for patronage abroad.

Rubens is everywhere, initially as his mentor, and Van Dyck could emulate Rubens's more intellectual and sculptural style when obliged to contribute to his paintings as his star assistant. Soon Van Dyck set up on his own, painting in pursuit of Titian, with a love of textures and pattern seen in sumptuous costumes and elaborate decorative compositions. But still we feel Rubens is in the background, an artistic burden and rival of mammoth proportions from whom Van Dyck is on the run, seeking to make his own mark. This impression of a suave yet driven young man is reinforced by his brushwork, providing breath-taking displays of virtuosity in its fluency and economy with a disturbing sense of nervous energy. At times it almost irritates, by attracting our attention like some delightful but precocious child fidgeting at a great event, drawing us into a length of damask or a sword hilt suggested with just a few brushstrokes.

Much as we like to claim Van Dyck as our own, he only spent the last nine years of his life in England, before his early death aged 42. Even then, he was planning to move to Antwerp when Rubens died in 1640. Something of the artist's restless ambition may be attributed to his upbringing. The seventh child of a prosperous Antwerp silk merchant, his mother died when he was eight and he was apprenticed to a leading painter when he was 10 as an artistic prodigy. In 1620, Van Dyck came to England and was rewarded with a salary from James I, but took off after a year. When he was finally won back, 10 years later, it was with an unprecedented package of royal patronage.

Charles I arranged a house for him at Blackfriars, with summer lodgings at Eltham Palace, a gold chain, an annual pension of pounds 200, additional payment for paintings, and an instant knighthood. Stairs were built from his studio to the Thames in order that the king might visit him in person. His self-portrait, with the king's gold chain and a sunflower suggesting royal favour shining on him, sums up his worldly success with an ease and conviction that his contemporary Rembrandt never achieved.

In return, Van Dyck took the king, only 5ft 4ins, and his even smaller wife, and endowed them through art with all the presence of majesty. Van Dyck's gift for conjuring up a sense of aristocratic demeanour that had been honed on merchants in Antwerp and Genoa was now employed for royalist propaganda. As spin doctor to the Stuart court, he made the diminutive monarch seem wholly justified in claiming the divine right of kings. Charles had ruled without parliament for three years by the time that Van Dyck was imported to dress up his cast of cavaliers into the most glamorous court the country has ever seen. Four hundred paintings later, and a month after Van Dyck's death, Charles left London for seven years of civil war.

The absence of the classic images of Charles I from the Louvre, Royal Collection and National Gallery, avoids overbalancing this more cosmopolitan image of the artist. Welcome instead is an early double portrait of Charles and Henrietta from the Archiepiscopal Castle at Kromeriz in the Czech Republic, intimate and vulnerable, and the triple portrait of the royal children, painted for Henrietta's sister, the Duchess of Savoy.

Within the exhibition there are several other Van Dyck shows trying to get out. His portraits of children appear not as stiff small adults as his predecessors would have painted them, but as secret playfellows of the artist, in a way that Reynolds was later to appreciate. Deep vistas open up at every opportunity, with landscapes tucked into corners where a lesser artist would have let an assistant fill in the blanks. No two hands are ever the same, and the entire exhibition can be read as a silent orchestra of gesture, conveying not the words of sign language but the subtlest of sentiments, and pretensions.

On leaving the exhibition, it is not only your eyes that have been refreshed; your whole body wants to float along, communicating only through a dangling glove or sideward glance. But you only need stroll as far as the companion exhibitions on Van Dyck at the British Museum or Wallace Collection before the sense of your innate nobility starts to wear off.

Van Dyck: Royal Academy, W1 (0171 300 8000), to 10 December