Text by Deanna MacDonald
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By accepting King Charles I’s invitation to England in 1632, Antwerp-born and trained Anthony van Dyck set in motion a long tradition of portrait painting in the British Isles. One of the greatest Flemish artists of the 17th century, van Dyck was a brilliant portraitist and his paintings of the king and the nobility between 1632 and 1641 inspired artists for the next 150 years and effectively created the enduring image of the Stuart court, of which this painting is a sterling example.
A group portrait featuring elegantly arranged figures in a romantic countryside – like all good Flemish painters van Dyck was also a sensitive landscapist – was typical of the artist’s late English period (as a 20-year-old he had briefly come to England to work for James I). Pictured are James Stanley, seventh Earl of Derby (1607–51), his wife Charlotte de la Trémoille (1599–1664) and one of their daughters, captured in aristocratic ease before the Civil Wars (1642–51) engulfed the British Isles and overturned their world.
With brilliant brushwork and seeming effortlessness, van Dyck envelopes each figure in luxurious fabric and lace. The earl, stylishly attired in black, gracefully motions to an island in the background, most likely representing the Isle of Man, of which the Derbys were hereditary sovereigns. The countess is his counterpart in white, dripping with jewels and ringlets. But it is the little girl (whose name is sadly unrecorded) who steals the limelight. In her vibrant orange gown – an allusion to the family’s descent from the House of Orange – she is like a little ball of barely restrained energy with her pressed lips, direct stare and neatly folded hands. Van Dyck was one of the best child portraitists ever and here one can sense a childish mix of curiosity and a desire to run off to play.
However, van Dyck’s portrait is primarily about the aspirations of the adults and of their aristocratic society. He creates figures of matchless elegance, natural dignity and of unquestioned authority and high culture. In this image, like others, he flatteringly elongated the subjects and portrayed them from below to enhance their stature. The sitters seem at once grand and human, a style of formal portraiture that remains the picture of blue-blooded nobility and gentlemanly ease today. Unsurprisingly van Dyck was eagerly sought after by society; so much so that he needed a workshop full of assistants who would do things like paint the costumes of his sitters arranged on dummies.
This artistic record of the Stuart court’s defiantly aristocratic bearing and cult of courtly refinement takes on a poignant aspect when considered in light of subsequent history. The earl and his wife were ardent Royalists. During the civil war, the earl, who prior to the war was a writer of history and devotional works, fought valiantly for Charles I, as did the countess, who was renowned for her vigorous defense of the family’s country seat, Lathom House, during a three month siege. Despite their efforts, the earl was captured and executed by Commonwealth forces in 1651. The countess, however, lived to see the restoration of the Stuart crown.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1640 Georges de la Tour: Boy Blowing on a Lamp, Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts