Monday, March 24, 2008

More Than Just a Beard

I’ve never succeeded at growing facial hair resembling anything respectable, but if I could, no Maynard G. Krebs soul patch for me. I want a Van Dyck. Born March 22, 1599, Anthony Van Dyck is far, far more than a snazzy beard. The star pupil of Peter Paul Rubens, Van Dyck found his greatest subject and patron in Charles I of England, shown above in a triple portrait (from 1635-1636) painted to be sent to Italy instead of Charles I himself for a portrait bust by Bernini. (That royal head would fall from those shoulders a decade later in the English Civil War, beginning the English Interregnum.) Van Dyck painted Charles I from literally every angle—wearing the trappings of power, on horseback, etc.—all with the same stylish facial hair that the Flemish artist himself sported so eponymously.

Although he’s most famous for his portraits of the powerful, Van Dyck also painted religious and mythological scenes. In Susanna and the Elders (above, from 1621-1622) Van Dyck shows his mastery of the Rubenesque nude he learned at the feet of the master. It’s fascinating to look at these non-portraits of Van Dyck’s and see a dramatic flair completely missing from the almost aloof depictions of royalty. Van Dyck certainly knew his audience, whether it was a royal patron desiring a portrayal as a fearless leader or the buyer of a ostensibly religious yet still salacious work such as Susanna, a common excuse for a “religious” nude in the same vein as the “acceptable” nudes posing as Aphrodite or other goddesses.

In addition to Rubens, Titian, Veronese, and the Italian masters Van Dyck studied firsthand in Italy for six years left a lasting impression on his art. The two young men shown in Van Dyck’s Lord John Stuart and His Brother Lord Bernard Stuart (above, from 1638) could be taken for young mythological gods if not for their seventeenth century dress. The same disdain the Olympians showed for the common people appears on the faces of these young noblemen in Van Dyck’s double portrait. It’s not a pretty picture in terms of showing the humanity of the upper class, as few portraits of that time aimed to do, but Van Dyck is masterful in his painting of the rich textures and fabrics of their clothing. The soft leather of their riding boots is beautifully modeled. The gloves hanging from the grasp of the boy on the right fall perfectly. In many ways, the storied history of English portraiture—Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence, and others—begins with Van Dyck, a Flemish import.

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