In 1632, the Flemish painter van Dyck accepted the invitation of King Charles I to come to England. Taking up the role of ‘chief ordinary painter to Their Majesties’ he enjoyed immense popularity; it became de rigueur for anyone of standing to have his or her portrait done by van Dyck. In his 9 years at court he painted some 400 portraits of the English aristocracy, including several iconic images of the king himself, creating a new tradition of aristocratic portrait that set the standard well into the 18th century.
This painting of Charles I is one of van Dyck’s masterpieces. In contemporary records it is referred to as a portrait of the king ‘at the hunt’, which explains Charles relatively casual attire. With no insignia, he stands next to his horse and two grooms, wearing an impossibly elegant hunting outfit: soft, cream-coloured boots and gloves, red velvet trousers, a shimmering silver doublet with lace collar and a wide brimmed hat worn at a jaunty angle over his curly hair, worn long, down his back, in the French manner. With one hand on his hip and the other resting upon a staff, Charles is the embodiment of aristocratic nonchalance.
Yet despite its relatively informal nature, this is an unambiguous image of baroque absolutism; the king dominates the image with regal self-assurance. Van Dyck highlights his royal subject by using a low viewpoint that accentuates his haughty expression and by placing him to one side, glowing with light against a bright sky. In contrast, the king’s attendants fade into the shadows and his horse humbly lowers his head in full submission. In the background, a picturesque landscape stretching to the sea suggests his kingdom’s vast riches. Charles was a firm believer in the divine right of kings and regarded art as an excellent medium to present the monarch as the human embodiment of divine rule. Van Dyck accomplishes this on every level. The overall effect of rich earthy colours and feathery brushstrokes brilliantly harmonises the human figures, animals and the landscape; this, it proclaims, is the natural order of things. And if any doubt remained, Carolus.I.REX Magnae Britanniae – Charles I reigns supreme over Great Britain – is inscribed on the canvas.
The portrait is classic van Dyck: delicately balance between dignified reserve and sumptuous elegance, there is also a hint of melancholy, adding gravitas to his lofty subject. Van Dyck’s lyrical baroque style draws inspiration from his two greatest influences – his teacher Rubens and the Venetian painter, Titian. Mixing stunningly realistic details (such as the touchable fabric of Charles’ doublet) and romantic, almost impressionist backgrounds, van Dyck laid the foundations for the English School of painting and was a major influence for later generations, including Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Van Dyck died at the height of his success and was buried in St Paul’s cathedral.
Charles I was not so lucky. His absolutism led to clashes with parliament and a civil war which ended in a decisive victory for those who opposed him. Unable to come to terms with his defeat, his subsequent scheming led to further conflict and eventually to his trial and conviction for treason. He was executed on 30 January 1649. This painting left England sometime in the 17th century and was later purchased by King Louis XVI, who was to share Charles I’s fate.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1635 Guido Reni: Saint Jerome, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
1636 Nicolas Poussin: The Triumph of Pan, London, National Gallery