Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) has been hailed as one of the greatest portraitists of all time. In 1672, biographer Giovan Pietro Bellori gushed that he “had justly acquired the greatest name that any painter had ever merited since Titian.” Add to that his reputation as one of the greatest printmakers of all time.
Born to a prosperous mercantile family in Antwerp, the Baroque master is best remembered for memorializing royals and aristocrats, famously becoming the principal painter to King Charles I of England in 1632, easing out Dutch artist Daniel Mytens, a lesser light.
No surprise, van Dyck was a child prodigy, producing the refined “Portrait of a Seventy-Year-Old Man” (1613) when he was only 14. It is his earliest dated work and kicks off the paintings on view in the Oval Room at “Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture,” the largest show in the Frick’s history and “the most comprehensive exhibit, showing him in all media,” museum Director Ian Wardropper said of the portrait oeuvre at a packed preview.
Van Dyck liked his job, and why wouldn’t he? He achieved fame by his early 20s and got to paint the cream of society — cardinals, statesmen, generals, nobles and, of course, Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria and the royal offspring and retinue (not to mention family, friends, artists and his mistress). Add to that an early fascination with exploring his own identity in a virtuoso series of self-portraits. They are all represented here, some 100 glorious works, with special attention given to drawings and prints (the “Iconographie”), in the lower level galleries and on the first floor, respectively.
In his London years, from 1632 until his death in 1641, van Dyck worked prodigiously — producing over 260 portraits — but he still managed to have plenty of fun. As guest curator Stijn Alsteens from The Met writes in the catalog, he supplied his sitters with a wealth of diversions. He quotes Bellori, who said the artist kept “servants, carriages, horses, players, musicians, and jesters, and with these entertainments he played host to all the great personages, knights and ladies, who came daily to have their portraits painted at his house.”
The Frick is a logical spot for a van Dyck celebration. The museum owns eight paintings by the artist, including two favorites of co-curator Adam Eaker, also from The Met — painter “Frans Snyders” (ca. 1620) and his wife, “Margareta de Vos” (ca. 1620), who lived in a house on Antwerp’s most fashionable street. The missus wears a gold bodice that glistens; a glass vase to her right brilliantly reflects strokes of blue and yellow paint. On our tour, Eaker waxed eloquent about the portraits’ “introspective, melancholy quality,” betraying “rich inner lives. It is this interiority that sets van Dyck apart.”
The master was around 20 when he executed these bravura works. He took off for Italy the next year to paint its aristocrats, spending most of his time in Genoa, but traveling to Rome and half a dozen other cities as well. The recently conserved “Genoese Noblewoman” (ca. 1625-27) in the Oval Room is a towering canvas of an unidentified woman. The subject is believed to be a widow, with black sash, cuffs and plumed headpiece telegraphing her loss.
Look to the other side of the room for the crimson “Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio” (1623), on loan from Florence’s Palazzo Pitti and making only its second appearance outside Italy. Painted in Rome, the canvas owes a clear debt to Titian. Here it is paired with a preparatory drawing that “shows how much room was left for improvisation,” Alsteens said, referring to the intricate lace fringe on the cardinal’s white tunic and altered pose in the final composition. The 24-year-old van Dyck’s portrait of the cardinal “established his career in all of Europe,” the curator said, with its hallmark “evocation of inner life.”
But this is a show about the process of portraiture, and visitors are encouraged to begin at the beginning (downstairs), where the curators have amassed an impressive array of chalk and oil sketches that trace the artist’s working method. (Works by reputed rival Peter Paul Rubens, Antwerp’s other master, can also be seen here.)
Van Dyck did not prepare detailed studies of his subjects. As Alsteens writes in the catalog, “from the beginning of his career [he] seems to have used paper to work out a composition rather than to capture the details of a likeness.” Costumes and poses were sketched on paper, but faces were typically only roughly delineated, with details painted directly from life onto the canvas.
The curators concluded our tour in the East Gallery, devoted mainly to van Dyck’s paintings of nobles and the English court. But the right-hand wall is reserved for family and friends and features portraits of three women, one unidentified, two positively identified: his wife, “Mary, Lady van Dyck, née Ruthven” (ca. 1640), and his mistress, “Margaret Lemon” (ca. 1638) — shown together here for the first time.