Anthony Van Dyck

Sir Anthony van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque artist who became the leading court painter in England, after enjoying great success in Italy and Flanders. He is most famous for his portraits of Charles I of England and his family and court, painted with a relaxed elegance that was to be the dominant influence on English portrait-painting for the next 150 years. He also painted biblical and mythological subjects, displayed outstanding facility as a draftsman, and was an important innovator in watercolour and etching.

Antoon van Dyck was born to prosperous parents in Antwerp. His talent was evident very early, and he was studying painting with Hendrick van Balen by 1609, and became an independent painter around 1615, setting up a workshop with his even younger friend Jan Brueghel the Younger. By the age of fifteen he was already a highly accomplished artist. He was admitted to the Antwerp painters' Guild of Saint Luke as a free master by February 1618. Within a few years he was to be the chief assistant to the dominant master of Antwerp, and the whole of Northern Europe, Peter Paul Rubens, who made much use of sub-contracted artists as well as his own large workshop. His influence on the young artist was immense; Rubens referred to the nineteen-year-old van Dyck as "the best of my pupils". The origins and exact nature of their relationship are unclear.

In 1620, at the instigation of George Villiers, Marquess of Buckingham, van Dyck went to England for the first time where he worked for King James I of England. After about four months he returned to Flanders, but moved on in late 1621 to Italy, where he remained for 6 years, studying the Italian masters and beginning his career as a successful portraitist. He was mostly based in Genoa, although he also travelled extensively to other cities. For the Genoese aristocracy, he developed a full-length portrait style, drawing on Veronese and Titian as well as Rubens ' style. In 1627, he went back to Antwerp where he remained for five years, painting more affable portraits which still made his Flemish patrons look as stylish as possible. By 1630 he was described as the court painter of the Habsburg Governor of Flanders, the Archduchess Isabella. In this period he also produced many religious works, including large altarpieces, and began his printmaking.

King Charles I was the most passionate and generous collector of art among the British monarchs, and saw art as a way of promoting his grandiose view of the monarchy and he had been trying since his accession in 1625 to bring leading foreign painters to England. Van Dyck had remained in touch with the English court, and had helped King Charles' agents in their search for pictures. In 1632, van Dyck returned to London, and was taken under the wing of the court immediately, being knighted in July and at the same time receiving a pension of £200 per year. He was an immediate success in England, rapidly painting a large number of portraits of the King and Queen Henrietta Maria, as well as their children. Many portraits were done in several versions, to be sent as diplomatic gifts or given to supporters of the increasingly embattled king. He painted many of the court. In England he developed a version of his style which combined a relaxed elegance and ease with an understated authority in his subjects which was to dominate English portrait-painting to the end of the 18th century. Many of these portraits have a lush landscape background.

He had spent most of 1634 in Antwerp, returning the following year, and in 1640-41, as the Civil War loomed, spent several months in Flanders and France. In 1640 he accompanied prince John Casimir of Poland after he was freed from French imprisonment. He left again in the summer of 1641, but fell seriously ill in Paris and returned hurriedly to London, where he died soon after in his house at Blackfriars. He was buried in Old St. Paul's Cathedral. In 1666, the Great Fire of London destroyed Old St. Paul's Cathedral, and with it van Dyck's tomb.

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