Anton Van Dych In His Century

Life, Art and Mistery

An Artist is  the son of his time. His works absorb the influence of those who came before him and those who work around him, and they will influence future generations of artists.
Art is like an ever flowing river. Everything has an origin and a continuation.
 It is the story of Anthony Van Dyck, of his art, but also of the world he lived in and the society that shaped him: the first four decades of the 17th century.
The works of the great artists of that time, including those of Van Dyck, were and still are particularly intriguing and mysterious.
All works of art have multiple reading levels, and I would like to mention three in particular.
The first level is purely aesthetic. It is a highly subjective and at the same time universal level. Everybody has a reaction at front a work of art: even indifference counts as a reaction. I like it, I don't like it, I don't understand it, it means nothing to me: these are the main types of reaction we have when looking at art. Everybody has a different perception of what is beautiful, fascinating, interesting. Everybody, in short, has a personal taste that evolves following personal patterns of creation and development and is influenced by the surrounding society.
The second reading level of a work of art is purely technical, and it is not for everybody to understand: only those who have studied the evolution of artistic currents over time with their peculiar techniques can fully grasp it. This second, smaller category of people is able to appreciate the technical quality of a work, its position among the artistic movements of its time, its degree of maturity and its originality compared to other artists of the same period. It will be a pleasure for these expert observers to asses which influence the work may have had in the history of art.
The third reading level is open to those who know the historical context in which the artist lived.
 With a deep knowledge of the artist's environment, I will be able to recognize the apparent and concealed messages his work wanted to convey to the public, or even to single individuals. Seen from this perspective, the study of a work of art becomes really challenging, fascinating and intriguing.
The last pages of this book will dwell on the historical and biographic events that took place during the last two years of Van Dyck's life. A key figure of these years is the future cardinal Mazarin: it will be interesting to examine what kind of relationship connected the artist and the statesman. Not only was Mazarin one of the most powerful figures of his time, he was also a refined art connoisseur and collector.
It is also important to mention that Mazarin, according to numerous sources, was going to be the next patron of Van Dyck after the forced interruption of the artist's career at the court of the British King Charles I. I will try to give a clear account of the interactions between the painter and the future cardinal, with the help of solid historical-scientific documentation. This story still presents some relatively unknown elements that are really worth studying: in addition to being fascinating, these elements shed new light on the artist's work, his reputation, and the real position he could have occupied in the history of art.
It is the opinion of numerous scholars that Van Dyck's art would have flourished at its best at the court of France thanks to Mazarin's patronage. This is why the last two years of his life could have had a crucial importance, if only his premature death hadn't decided otherwise.
He was a rose broken before fully giving all of its scent.
 This would show even more clearly today if Van Dyck had managed to realize a great work of art, similar to the one created by his master Rubens for Marie de' Medici in her palace in Paris. The great work I am talking about was going to be a majestic cycle of paintings for the Gallery Du Louvre. This was the main reason for his relationship with Mazarin. This work would have allowed Van Dyck to prove his mastery as a complete artist to his contemporaries as well as to the generations to come. Such a vast cycle of paintings could have been the long wished for, long awaited turning point of his artistic career.
The main historical-artistic differences between Rubens and Van Dyck clearly come to light through the observation of their religious paintings. Van Dyck's work in this field has mostly been considered as an appendix of Rubens. However, a substantial, although subtle difference can be observed between their styles. Rubens's works are powerful, awe-inspiring, with a mighty, imposing composition. They resound like war drums, they mirror the religious passion that inflamed the Catholics of the Hispanic-Flemish world in his times, the years of the Counter-Reformation. Van Dyck's painting, on the contrary, was sweeter, softer, perhaps more naïve. It was a soul-caressing painting, one that would make hearts beat, rather than unchain burning passions. In fact, with the end of the internal wars within the Christian world and the modern tendency towards ecumenism, Rubens's religious painting is strong, energetic and vigorous painting has lost some of its original meaning, which was a sort of religious-political call to arms. Its work only remains as a testimony of a time gone by.
Van Dyck's religious painting, on the contrary, still calls to the soul of its observers with sweetness, elegance, sobriety: its meaning is fully understandable even for today's perception. Both Rubens and Van Dyck were exponents of the Spanish-Flemish artistic world that supported the Counter-Reformation. Rubens had lived in Spain, at the Spanish court, the political heart of the Counter-Reformation, one of the strictest and most polemic promoters of the whole movement. This was the vision he fought for with his vigorous religious painting. Van Dyck was never in Spain. He knew that world only by reflection, from his life in Flanders and his journey to Italy, especially in the South, to Sicily. When he travelled to Sicily, the island was suffering from a terrible plague epidemic. Under those circumstances, religion was perceived as a personal thing, rather than as a political issue: it was first of all the relationship between the suffering man and God, who became man's only hope and strength. The young Fleming, aged only 25, was deeply impressed by the violence of that experience: his stay in Sicily during the plague decisively shaped his emotions, his sensitive soul and his feeling for religion. All of this mirrors in his painting: although his whole activity can be interpreted in the light of the Counter-Reformation, it does not consist of roaring, passionate incitements to take sides in the religious fight of the time. He had a subtler, more intimate aim: evangelization. He pursued it in a charming, gentle, elegant way, without shouting, sometimes with a certain naivety. Rather than fiery passions, he levered personal feelings of love and compassion, feelings that can touch the most intimate strings of one's heart with moving sweetness.

In short, Van Dyck's technical and conceptual autonomy make him a real master in his art, not just a perennial disciple.
His unique value and his difference from Rubens would have fully come to light in the following years, thanks to the patronage of Mazarin and the greater freedom that the court of Louis XIII of France would have allowed him.
The second thesis I sustain is that the professional image of Van Dyck was obscured by Rubens's booming, vigorous fame. This is not a critic to Rubens's artistic quality: this situation can be explained with the historical circumstances in which the two painters lived, their age difference, their different attitudes towards public relations and also with the extremely short time that passed between their deaths, only eighteen months.
I rather tried to express, to narrate, to “write” the story of Van Dyck in his context, using both words and images. This is why I included not only Van Dick's paintings, but also those of the contemporary artists who were his direct models and the past masters who were his ideal references. In addition to that, I also considered works that, in my opinion, help to better “visualize” the story I mean to tell.
I will try to visually show how art is able to narrate history. It does so with a complex system of shades, atmospheres, expressions, “scents”, that unveil people and stories immersed in the spirit of their time, sometime revealing ancient mysteries.

This book rather aims at studying the peculiar, independent characteristics of Van Dyck's art, and offering a somewhat different perspective on his life and works: the perspective of his own times.

  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  •        Chapter I
  •              1.1 Family and childhood
  •              1.2 Disciple of Pieter Paul Rubens
  •        Chapter II
  •              2.1 First journey to England..37
  •              2.2 First journey to Italy.
  •              2.3 Arrival in Italy
  •              2.4 Rome
  •        Chapter III
  •              3.1 Europe in the 17th century
  •              3.2 Charles V.
  •              3.3 The Lutheran Reformation
  •              3.3.1 The position of Catholicism
  •              3.3.2 The position of Protestantism
  •              3.3.3 The consequences of the Reformation
  •            3.4 France
  •              3.5 England.
  •              3.6 Charles I
  •              3.7 The Low Countries and the Flanders
  •        Chapter IV
  •              4.1 Urban VIII
  •              4.2 Italian Renaissance
  •              4.3 The golden century of the Flanders
  •              4.5 The triumphant Church, Rome, the art
  •              4.6 The genre of portrait.
  •              4.7 Carracci, Caravaggio and Rubens
  •        Chapter V
  •              5.1 Baroque
  •        Chapter VI
  •              6.1 Italy, Florence
  •              6.2 Venice
  •              6.3 Palermo
  •              6.4 Sofonisba Anguissola
  •              6.5 The notes about Anguissola and her portrait
  •              6.6 Second stay in Genoa
  •        Chapter VII
  •              7.1 Back to Antwerp
  •        ChapterVIII
  •              8.1 the second London period
  •              8.2 Charles I, patron of the arts
  •              8.3 A life as a Prince
  •              8.4 1634. Antwerp and Brussels. The destroyed masterpiece
  •              8.5 1635. London
  •              8.6 Health, alchemy and mummies and precious materials
  •              8.7 Sumptuous black. Speed and drawing
  •              8.8 Queen Henrietta
  •              8.9 Marriage
  •              Chapter IX
  •              9.1 Death of Rubens and Bishops' Wars
  •              9.2 The French court and the mystery of Mazarin's portrait
  •              9.3 The portrait of the Prince and Princess of   Orange
  •              9.4 Bernini, the bust of Richelieu and the project of the cardinal's portrait
  •              9.5 The intrigue of the Louvre.
  •              9.6 Second journey to France in 1641 and death.



Anton Van Dick In His Century Life, Art and Mistery

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