Quick notes on the life of Anthony Van Dyck

nthony Van Dyck was born in Antwerp on the 22nd March 1599. His parents, Franchois Van Dyck and Maria Cuypers, married in 1590 and had twelve children. Anthony was the seventh. His grandfather, an art lover, had left to his father a flourishing silk trading business: the family had clients in Paris, London, and most of the Flemish cities.
The Van Dycks belonged to the wealthy Flemish bourgeoisie, which allowed young Anthony a childhood free from economic problems.
In 1609, aged only ten, he was sent to learn the art of painting in the atelier of Hendrick Van Balen (Antwerp 1575 – 17th July 1632).
On the 11th February 1618, at the age of 19, Anthony Van Dyck was admitted as a Master in the Guild of Saint Luke, Antwerp's painters association.


Pieter Paul Rubens (Siegen 28th June 1577 – Antwerp 30th May 1640) was Van Dyck's real father in art: the young painter had the affection and devotion of a son towards him. Rubens, on his part, always had a great love and esteem for his disciple, becoming his master, but also his counsellor and his patron on an international level.
Anthony was more of an assistant than a simple pupil to Rubens: it is sometimes impossible for scholars to certainly attribute a painting to one of the two. This is the case of “The Battle of the Amazons”: it is officially attributed to Rubens, but Bellori (*) suggests it should be attributed to Van Dyck.

Rubens was not only a great painter, but also one who could use his art as a diplomacy instrument.
He soon understood that Van Dyck was extremely talented and could really have become his artistic heir. He was proud of his disciple; not only did he devote himself to his education, but he also promoted and supported his activity his whole life long.
“He [Rubens] cleverly took the occasion of some portraits painted by Anthony: he praised them with the highest admiration, and whenever a client came to ask for a portrait, he proposed Anthony to take care of it […](*)
Thanks to his mentor, Van Dyck became well known outside Flanders as well and gained an excellent reputation, which earned him numerous commissions.
In 1620, a 21-year-old Van Dyck arrived for the first time in London, at the court of James I, who granted him a yearly pension of a hundred pounds.


Van Dyck left for Italy on the 3rd October 1621, and Rubens provided him with several important accreditation letters for potential clients and other artists.
Van Dyck arrived in Genoa on the 20th November 1621, starting a journey through Italy that would last seven years.

He had the chance to immerse himself in the peculiar atmosphere of artistic ferment that characterized the main Italian cities, each of which was a little independent State.
In modern terms we could say he went to Italy for an internship. He was still a student, but at the same time he realized a remarkable number of works.

He moved to Rome in February 1622. He didn't blend in well with the community of Flemish painters living in the Eternal City.: he didn't integrate with the bohemian way of life of most of his colleagues. On the contrary, he led a high maintenance, almost lordly lifestyle: he was extremely conscious of what he believed should be the role of the artist in Counter-Reformation Rome. Upon his arrival in Italy, Van Dyck was surely not short of resources: he had been painting numerous works, and he was equipped with excellent credentials.

Van Dyck visited Florence to study Renaissance, the artists who had given life to it, and its meaning in the history of art. As said, Florence had been the cradle of Italian Renaissance. It was an elegant, refined city, with a magnificent architecture and public monuments that were real jewels of sculptural art. Its palaces, its churches and its painting fascinated the viewer, then as now, with peaks of beauty that harmoniously touched the innermost strings of the human heart.
Venice was the home town of Van Dyck's favourite painter, Titian Vecellio. Together with Cesare, the nephew of the great painter, Van Dyck visited the city and studied its artworks. His Italian notebook from this period contains sketches that reproduce the works of some of the main painters, among whom Leonardo: as many as 200 pages of it are dedicated to the works of Titian, who had been the official painter of the Republic of Venice.


Van Dyck's journey went on: in April 1624 he was invited to Palermo to portray the

Viceroy Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy. He moved to the Sicilian capital and remained there for some months, during which he saw the outburst of the terrible plague epidemics. In 1625 he returned to Genoa.



Van  Dyck sojourned in Genoa with almost no interruptions until 1627. He painted for the ruling class, that was composed of nobles and rich bourgeois who enjoyed displaying their wealth. Rubens had worked in Genoa some years before him: he had been greatly admired, and he had made a number of influential acquaintances. He gave his disciple the credentials that allowed him to be welcomed by the most exclusive circles of the city. Therefore, in addition to several commissions for religious paintings, the young Flemish artist completed the portraits of many exponents of the nobility and upper class.



He returned to Antwerp in 1627 because of his father's death. His sensitive personality deeply suffered from this circumstance. He was 28 years old, and death had come to knock on his family's door.

This event led him to deep, personal and emotional reflections about the brevity of life, the transience of man and his relationship with God. Being a devout Catholic,he joined the Congregation of the Celibates founded by the Jesuits of Antwerp and painted several works on religious themes.

In April 1632 Van Dyck returned to London, where the King received him as Rubens's disciple and a new Titian. He was welcomed with great honours. At first he resided at the house of Edward Norgate at the King's expense, then he changed his residence and settled in a large house in Blackfriars, a gift from the King. His new accommodation had a wonderful garden on the Thames, on which a little dock was built, so that Van Dyck's guests and Charles I himself could easily reach his home through the river.
On the 5th of July 1632, Charles I conferred him a title of nobility: he named him member of the Order of the Bath and granted him a considerable yearly income. Besides this, he officially awarded him the title of Principal Painter in Ordinary. This is how Sir Anthony Van Dyck began his second English period.


In 1634 he embarked on a journey to Antwerp and to Brussels, where he spent most of his time.


In 1635, back to London, Van Dyck focused almost exclusively on portraiture. He mostly worked in his sumptuous house, which was also his atelier. This may be the reason why his attention is drawn much more to the subject than to the background. We are referring in particular to the paintings of the many clients who rushed to his atelier to be portrayed by the King's Principal Painter, and not to the paintings of the King or the Queen themselves.
In this period, Van Dyck and his dear ones probably underestimated the problem of his health, maybe because he was still relatively young, even for the standards of his time. But they should have taken it more seriously. His friends, among whom the Queen Henrietta and the King himself, blamed his dissolute lifestyle for his illness, and believed that changing his way of living would have helped him recover. We ignore whether this was the case.
It was also said that Van Dyck dedicated himself to alchemy and that, to obtain his famous “Van Dyck brown”, he even used the rests of Egyptian mummies, grinding them and mixing them with various binders.

Van Dyck was admired not only by the King, but also by his wife, the Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria, the sister of the King of France Louis XIII.
Among the Catholics at the court, the Flemish artist was one of the most loyal members of her entourage. The Queen considered him her protégé since he first arrived in England, so much so that in 1633 she summoned his brother Théodore Waltmant Van Dyck, the canon of St. Michael in Antwerp, as her personal chaplain at the court of England(*). Queen Henrietta was portrayed by the artist on many occasions.

In 1640 Van Dyck got married, after the end of an affair with a jealous mistress, Margaret Lemon, one of his models. He portrayed her on many occasions in allegorical scenes.

“Van Dyck was a sinner, always loved, always in love, full of human emotionality. His life was even too human, but he always kept his faith and his piety, also at the court of England, where the Catholic Queen was the first figure in the Royal House as well as in politics(*).”
His bride was a Scottish noblewoman by the name of Mary Ruthven. Their relationship, as all relationships at court in that period, was not a simple one, as proven by the strong bond between the couple and Queen Henrietta.


In May 1640 Rubens passed away, and Van Dyck was allegedly invited to return to Antwerp to direct the atelier of the great artist. In fact, it seems that he was only called to complete some of his master's unfinished works(*). Either way, on the 13th of September 1640 he requested a pass to leave Englandand travel back to Flanders in the company of his wife, to introduce her to his family. He arrived in Antwerp on the 18th of October, and in January of the following year he went to Paris.
It was well known that King Louis XIII was planning to decorate some of the galleries of the Palace of Louvre. Van Dyck longed for that commission, both because he wished to vary the themes of his artistic production to fully prove his abilities, and because he wanted to avoid economic hardships.
It is known for certain that he was in Paris in January 1641. “France was still his aim: he wished to decorate the Great Gallery of the Louvre, the royal palace. Having travelled to Flanders with his wife, on his way back he made a deviation to Paris, where Nicolas Poussin had just arrived. He remained there for two months, but since he did not achieve any result, he returned to England(*).”
The power was in the hands of the King and of Cardinal Richelieu, his powerful prime minister. The rising star of the French court was Mazarin, his protégé and designated successor. Mazarin was fond of arts, and since his family did not belong to the high aristocracy, in those years it was crucial for him to elevate and promote his personal image. It would have been very helpful for him to obtain a portrait by the most famous portraitist of Europe, who had worked for Kings, Queens, Princes, Cardinals and countless nobles. For Van Dyck, on the other hand, Mazarin's support was a way to gain the favour of Richelieu, and eventually of the King: he saw the possibility to establish himself at the French court and above all to obtain the commission he so longed for. In the absence of this concrete perspective, Van Dyck himself would have regarded his journey to Paris as useless.
In January 1641, Van Dyck started working with extreme care on a portrait of Mazarin, without the help of his assistants, who were still in London. This was the best way for him to gain the favour of the powerful figures at the court: to concretely prove his abilities and ingratiate himself with those who could have helped him to obtain what he wished for. His master, Rubens, had done the same: while trying to obtain the commission for the cycle of paintings of Marie de' Medici's life in the Gallery of the Luxembourg Palace, he had painted the Queen's portrait as an act of homage.
The Mazarin's portrait, now lost, was the last work painted entirely by Van Dyck and the first portrait of Jules Mazarin, who was not yet a cardinal at that time.
In those months (January 1641), a particular discussion was taking place at the court of France. Cardinal Richelieu had commissioned Bernini to represent him in a full-size statue, and the main problem that had to be discussed was how to guarantee the resemblance of the final work to the original: the Cardinal-Duke could not travel to Rome to pose for the statue, and Bernini refused to move to Paris.
In particular, the problem was connected to the fidelity of the cardinal's portraits that had to be sent to the Italian artist as a model. One of the possible reasons why Mazarin requested a portrait by Van Dyck was to show the final work to Richelieu, in order to convince him to appoint the Flemish artist to prepare the portrait for Bernini.
The problem was of pressing importance, as documented by a letter reported below.
Mazarin was in charge of this matter on behalf of Richelieu, and Cardinal Antonio Barberini, who liaised with Bernini, wrote him the following in a letter dated 6th January 1641: “If he wishes for a greater resemblance, he should ask for it with the brush, not only with the pen: many here have noticed that the portraits of His Eminence were less resemblant than the statue itself(*).”
The future portrait of Richelieu would have surely granted Van Dyck the benevolence of the Cardinal, and consequently the commission of the Louvre. In this perspective, the realization of Mazarin's portrait must have appeared of crucial importance to him: this is why he took an exceptional care in representing his visage. He did not even omit the little imperfections that other artists, later on, would rather try to conceal. His main goals, in this case, were realism and resemblance.
The portrait was realized between January and April 1641.
Mazarin was portrayed in full size and without the cardinal vestments he usually appears with, because he was made a cardinal only later, in December of that year.
The portrait was aimed at highlighting the rising importance of the future cardinal at the French court: this was achieved through the depiction of sumptuous drapery and refined black garments, with the embroideries and the plays of light of which Van Dyck was a master.
As mentioned, Mazarin belonged to a minor noble family, whose importance was not adequate to the role he was playing in Paris in those years. The coat of arms of his house was not important enough to be used as his identification symbol in the portrait, therefore Van Dyck has used other iconographic elements to identify and celebrate the figure of Mazarin. The iconographic expedients was, an olive leaf, the symbol of peace, as a reference to Mazarin's noted diplomatic ability. He placed a particular emphasis on his hat, with a finger pointing to it, as a reference at the hat that Mazarin has waved at the siege of Casale when he had rushed between the armies ready for battle to prevent their clash, announcing the peace treaty he had managed to obtain at the last moment.This episode, narrated in an 18th-century chronicle, was common knowledge in the 17th century, and it was generally regarded as the foundation of Mazarin's political fortune: "The Spaniards were besieging Casale, and the French, who sought to break their lines, were about to order battle on the 26th of October 1630, when Mazarin, after undertaking several journeys and proposing numerous ways to establish peace, suddenly came out of the Spanish trenches and galloped towards the French, waving his hand and his hat and calling out loud Peace!, Peace!. Then he addressed the Marshal of Schemberg, who was in command of the army, and proposed him some peace conditions that were accepted by the French generals. These conditions were ratified with the Peace of Regensburg, signed on the 6th of April 1631. All the merit went to Mazarin, and Richelieu developed an great esteem for him, that was later the cause of his promotion."[34] The subject displayed the elegant posture and the pale, melancholic figure that was typical for the portraits of Van Dyck's last period: the combination of those elements gave the subject an aura of aristocratic superiority, defining the importance of his social role. Furthermore, the portrait shares some of the stylistic traits of the portrait of the Prince and Princess of Orange, which was painted shortly after: the shape and colour of the column and floor; the sky rendered with lapis lazuli; the reflections on the creases of the garments of the young Prince, a typical element that easily appeared also on Mazarin's black garments and on the ample red drapery that might have framed his figure; finally, the composition and sketching of the whole painting, the proportions and the colour palette. The portrait was lost when the revolts of the Fronde forced Cardinal Mazarin to abandon Paris and all the goods of his household, including his famous library: everything was sold at an auction by the Tribunal of Paris between the 28th of December 1651 and February 1652. According to some suppositions, the portrait was purchased by a representative of the Prince de Conti, his most bitter enemy, as a personal offence to Mazarin, and later brought to his castle of Pézenas in Provence. Some years later, on the 21st of February 1654, Armand de Bourbon, Prince of Conti, married a niece of Cardinal Mazarin, Anna Maria Martinozzi. The marriage was arranged by her uncle on the occasion of the agreement of Pézenas (20 July 1653): the Prince of Conti had been exiled and convicted for lese-majesty for his active participation in the "Fronde des nobles", the revolt of the princes, and that agreement marked his readmission at the French court. That marriage was a key element in Mazarin's policy, which included the reconciliation with the powerful families who had opposed him during the Fronde. He was extremely generous in his wedding gifts: he gave the groom 200,000 thalers and the dominion on the province of Guyenne, whose capital was Bordeaux. On that occasion, the portrait was probably considered as a wedding gift like the others, also because demanding its restitution would have led to an embarrassing situation, one that could have compromised the new rapport between the cardinal and the Prince. The portrait was never heard of again, probably because its property was a delicate and potentially dangerous issue. Today the portrait belongs to some important European private collection. Should it be presented it would constitute a major discovery for the history of art as well as for the French, English, Italian and European history of that time. Thanks to this portrait, Van Dyck ingratiated himself with Mazarin, who took him under his protection and tried to procure him the commission of the Louvre. If only the fate had not decided otherwise, Mazarin's support would have allowed a fundamental turn in his career, opening a new chapter in his artistic life: he would have had the chance to reach the highest degree of artistic perfection, not only in the field of portraiture but also in other genres, such as mythological and religious painting, of which he had already given a few examples. Mazarin was very powerful in France at that time, and his power would only increase after the death of Richelieu in 1642. He had very influential friends both in Rome and in Spain.
In May 1641, William II of Orange-Nassau married Princess Mary, the daughter of Charles I and Henrietta. To celebrate the event, Van Dyck painted the portrait of the young couple. The painter was in England then, and he intended to deliver the portrait during a journey to Europe that he planned to begin in August. This information is provided by a letter dated 13th August 1641 from Lady Jane Wolfert, a lady-in-waiting of the Queen, to the Baron of Brederode(*). The portrait of the Prince and Princess of Orange was probably meant to be the last of his works as official painter of the English court.



Mazarin had convinced Richelieu to entrust Van Dyck with the realization of his portrait, as Charles I had done before him, so that Bernini could sculpt his full-size statue. That portrait was meant to grant Van Dyck the commission for the decoration of the Gallery of the Louvre.
This is why he was called back to France at the end of summer. He was in critical health conditions when he left, and he never made it to Paris, where he should have met Richelieu and Mazarin. His health stopped him, as confirmed by a letter he sent to Monsieur de Chavigny on the 16th of November 1641 (see the footnote for the original text): “Monsieur, I have heard from Monsieur Montagu about the esteem and the honour that Monsieur le Cardinal has given me. I am infinitely sorry about my poor health conditions, which make me incapable and unworthy of accepting such a great favour. I could not wish for a greater pleasure than serving His Eminence, and as soon as I recover, as I hope, I am going to travel there immediately to receive his orders. I feel extremely indebted and obliged, and since my health deteriorates day by day, I wish to return as soon as possible to my home in England, therefore I beg you to procure a passport for me, my five servants, my coach and my four horses. I am and shall remain your faithful servant, Anto Van Dyck(*).”
Upon his arrival in London, he was informed of the birth of his first and only legitimate daughter, Justiniana. He wrote his will and, although Charles I had entrusted him to the care of a famous doctor of his time, Sir Theodore Mayenne(*), paying him a considerable amount for his treatment, he died on the 9th of December 1641.


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