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

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
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
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.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice