This art exhibition review was originally posted on my old website in February 2018.
‘Charles I: King and Collector’, the current art exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, is a great opportunity to get to know Charles not as governing monarch but as art connoisseur. The show has been promoted as a chance to see Charles I’s art collection re-united after 350 years, after it was sold at his death and scattered throughout Europe in the 1650s, and there are works by Titian, Tintoretto, Holbein and Rubens lent by museums from all over Europe. Its greatest worth, however, is showcasing one of the most important patron-artist relationship in the history of art, that of Charles I and Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyck.
Van Dyck stands out more than any other artist in the exhibition, both in quality and in quantity. I counted 19 works by him across the 12 exhibition rooms, including the most arresting images in the whole show. Many of them have never been exhibited together before and this comprehensiveness provides valuable insights on the art produced by the meeting of these two men. Van Dyck’s paintings had a special place in Charles’ art collection. Charles bought many famous artworks by dead painters, and commissioned works from well-known contemporary artists who worked all over Europe. With Van Dyck, however, he had the chance to do what every art collector prefers: to personally nurture and guide a great talent. Van Dyck had trained under Peter Paul Rubens and had spent time in Italy where he developed his own particular style of portraiture, but it was at the court of Charles I, and under his direction, that he perfected his style and produced the paintings which assured his place in the history of art. Most importantly, these are also the paintings that transformed the image of the British monarchy.
To understand the visual transformation in British royal portraiture that took place under Van Dyck one just has to explore the works exhibited in Room 6 of the exhibition. The portraits painted by previous artists like Daniel Mytens look competent but stiff, realistic but uninspiring. Compare them to the works produced by Van Dyck hanging nearby and those earlier works look almost pedestrian. Van Dyck elevated royal portraiture to a higher plane drawn with elegance and pathos, where kings and queens began to resemble what King James I—Charles’ father—once had called ‘little gods’. This transformation was achieved partly by Van Dyck’s skill in placing hints of power and wealth in his portraits. These included the use of majestic single columns behind royal sitters to convey monumentality, the shimmering and rich way in which he painted clothes, and the frequent use of laces worn by sitters. In 17th century Europe lace collars were not the quaint country items they have become today: a large lace collar, like the ones worn by Charles I in the ‘Portrait in Three Positions’, was an extremely expensive luxury item that conveyed the sitter’s status, the equivalent of a Ferrari for a millionaire today.
But there was something more that Van Dyck brought to his paintings of Charles I and his family, something indefinable yet unmistakably regal. The exhibition audioguide describes it as ‘that something more’, a ‘nonchalant elegance’ present in the sitters’ poses and looks. I would describe it as a kind of majesty that does not need to be emphasized. It can be seen in Charles’ confident poses and calm dignity, and in the gentle elegance shown by Queen Henrietta Maria in her portraits. These images, of course, masked the fact that Charles was a short man with a large nose, and that Henrietta Maria was as a sallow-skinned woman with large bucked teeth. But that is exactly the point: by smoothing out their physical appearances and placing them in a visual universe dominated by dignity and refinement, Van Dyck transformed the image of the British monarchy.
Past painters, like Hans Holbein at the court of Henry VIII and Nicholas Hilliard at the court of Elizabeth I, had created powerful and iconic images of royalty, but their styles were so tied to those individual monarchs that when those monarchs died, those visual styles passed away with them. Van Dyck’s way of representing royalty was based instead on an idea of what royalty is, perhaps influenced by Charles’ own views of divine kingship. His images of understated power and calm dignity immediately convey that the royal sitter possesses ‘that something more’ that places him or her on a higher plane in life. Van Dyck’s way of portraying royalty was so groundbreaking and powerful that it became the standard way of portraying the British Royal Family until the 20th century. Royal portraitists like Peter Lely (for Charles II), Johan Zoffany (for George III), and Franz X. Winterhalter (for Queen Victoria) can all be considered disciples of Anthony van Dyck, though none of them equalled his original royal style. In a way, you could say that it was Van Dyck who gave the British Monarchy its visual sense of understated majesty, which fits the English psyche so well.
Among Van Dyck’s individual works in the exhibition, one has of course to point out Charles I’s famous ‘Portrait in Three Positions’, which was actually painted as a guide for Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini to make a bust of Charles I in Italy, since Bernini could not travel to England. Its view from three sides was meant to help produce a fuller three-dimensional work. The full-length, rich portrait of ‘Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson’, lent by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, is also noteworthy as perhaps the best portrait Van Dyck ever painted of Charles’ Queen.
The best works by Van Dyck, however, indeed the very heart of this exhibition, are found in the great Central Hall space of the Royal Academy. For the first time in history the four largest canvases Van Dyck painted of Charles I are brought together in one place where they can be admired together as a group. They are ‘Charles I on Horseback’, now in the National Gallery, down the road in Trafalgar Square; ‘Charles I with Monsieur De St Antoine’, owned by the Royal Collection and usually on show in Buckingham Palace; ‘Charles I a la Chasse’, owned by the Louvre in Paris; and hanging in room 6 but within full view of the Central Hall, ‘The Greate Peece’, a portrait of Charles I and his family which is also owned by the Royal Collection.
Bringing these works together is indeed a remarkable achievement since neither Van Dyck nor Charles I would have been able to contemplate these paintings together in one place in their own lifetimes, since they were painted at different times and hung in different palaces. The Louvre portrait in particular is back in England for the first time since Henrietta Maria took it with her to exile in France during the English Civil War in the 1640s. To contemplate these four large canvases of Charles I together is a magnificent experience. You can observe how Van Dyck wielded his royal brush to instil each work with different shades of majesty.
‘Charles I on Horseback’ is powerful, massive. The very size of the large horse, ridden by the smaller figure of Charles, is meant to convey the monarch’s divine ability to tame forces larger than himself. ‘Charles I with Monsieur De St Antoine’ is a masterpiece in majesty, bringing together disparate elements of power into a coherent whole. Charles is shown as a modern Roman Emperor riding a beautiful white horse through a classical arch that is adorned with drapery. He is wearing armour—with of course an expensive lace collar over it—while the aforementioned Monsieur De St Antoine gazes admirably at him from below. Just for a touch of regal overkill, Van Dyck even painted a huge royal coat of arms on the left side of the painting. On paper, all these royal elements combined would look pompous and ridiculous. But on the actual canvas they contribute to a sublime, coherent, and even slightly understated vision of monarchy.
That feeling of understatement is again most powerfully expressed in ‘Charles I a la Chasse’, i.e. ‘Charles I at the Hunt’. In a way, this should be the least regal of the three canvases brought together since Charles is merely dressed as an elegant country gentleman with no evident trappings of royalty around him. But look closely and you notice the servant carrying expensive robes behind Charles; the blue Garter ribbons flashing on Charles’ chest and on his left calf; and the beautiful gesture of the horse bending its head most reverentially to the King. A sense of refinement and understated power permeates the whole painting. This work more than anything else showcases Van Dyck’s visual creation of a sophisticated sense of majesty that is so self-evident it does not need to be advertised. How fitting that this painting should have its permanent home in what is considered the most refined and elegant city in the world, Paris.
Anthony Van Dyck died in December 1641 at the tragic young age of 42. Ten months later Charles I raised his standard at Edgehill in the inaugural battle of the English Civil War. It is one of history’s odd coincidences that Van Dyck died shortly before Charles’ authority as monarch came to be challenged by arms, for Van Dyck had played his own part in creating an emerging, threatening absolutist monarchy in England. You could say that whilst Charles provided its theory Van Dyck provided its visuals, which Charles used to reflect and reinforce his ideas to himself. Without Van Dyck—who produced what Charles loved the most, art—Charles lost his artistic alter ago, his self-image. The continuous blunders he committed during the course of the Civil War could be partly explained by a lack of self-confidence once the two people who most boosted his self-esteem were no longer around him. His wife, Henrietta Maria, was in exile abroad, and his favourite painter, the maker of his majesty, was dead.
Anthony Van Dyck’s paintings of Charles I are the major reason people should see this exhibition. Without the works Charles commissioned from him his collection would still have been world-class, equal to those of other European monarchs, but it would have lacked ‘that something more’, that spark of originality that makes an art collection unique from all others. The best compliment that can be given to Charles I as an art collector is that the most original and memorable works in his collection were not those he bought, but those he commissioned from a painter he nurtured and guided, and who perhaps understood him best.
‘Charles I: King and Collector’ ran at the Royal Academy in London between 27 January and 15 April 2018. You can still see some of the works exhibited here: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/charles-i-king-and-collector