The Cavalier Artist

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He looks at you with surprise whilst attempting to paint his next snapshot of nobility. He is an artist who has immersed himself in the work of Titian, that continually astounding Old Master who’s use of red is possibly the finest to ever be seen in Western art. The work of Titian would transform this man into one who could use color more effectively and compose scenes with a profound modeling of form. Who is this man of repute? He is a Flemish artist who apprenticed under Peter Paul Rubens (possibly the greatest Baroque artist): Anthony Van Dyck. His self-portrait above shows no hallmarks of a self-indulgent artist. His personality is not overbearing. He is a painter who can gorgeously render human features such as hair or the blood seeping through the sitter’s veins. He would go on to become Britain’s first great artist.

I have always thought that Britain has never had a plethora of great artists. I mean, look at France and you have Renoir, Monet, Watteau, Gauguin and Cezanne just for starters. The Dutch of course have Vermeer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Hals and many more. The British? Well, they have Turner, Constable and Gainsborough. Sir Joshua Reynolds (a rival of Gainsborough and dubbed “Sir Sloshua” by the Pre-Raphaelites) does not make my list of “great” artists. One might even boldly suggest George Stubbs and his wildly original horse paintings, a throwback to the pantheon of stiff, aristocratic, brainwashing – and insomnia inducing – English paintings which I – or you – should not have to look at for more than ten seconds.  So, that leaves Turner, Constable and Gainsborough. I would be quite happy stacking them up against Europe’s finest. Turner, for my money, is better than many of France’s Impressionists, including Monet. Yes, I think Turner is better than Monet. But I digress … slightly. On to Van Dyck. If there’s an artist who has casual disregard for the stiffness, the mediocrity and the superficial in art, then this artist would be Anthony Van Dyck. He was the esteemed painter who revolutionized English painting and dragged it up into the higher realms of art, to finally do away with the doldrums of Jacobean portraiture that frankly, no one remembers or remotely cares about. One piercing rendering of the countenance of a noble subject in a Van Dyck portrait could tell you what they thought about themselves. Personality became a factor in English portraiture.

While I was wandering through the National Gallery in London, I saw many paintings which caught my eye. Of course, chief among these was “Supper at Emmaus” by Caravaggio and the first panel of Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano” triptych and several Turner’s and Lorrain’s. All of these artworks are very fine, and they are eye catching in impressions you would gather from any great works of art in a museum. Take “Battle of San Romano” for instance. It’s like a Hollywood film in its sense of scope and campy action. “Supper at Emmaus” is possibly my favorite Caravaggio. It has that dark, shadowy atmosphere that you would see in a film noir from the 40’s or 50’s (of course, Caravaggio was the primary influence of that style of film-making). I also can’t help being floored by the striking sunlight in a Lorrain painting. Turner, a prototype Impressionist, could often be seen depicting a maelstrom, shipwreck, or onrushing train, so, subject matter wise, it’s very hard to keep your eyes off of his canvases. They will inevitably annihilate the other artworks in the room.

However, I was taken in by what you might initially think are rather stuffy, regal worshiping paintings. I distinctively remember the first one that I noticed. It was a depiction of King Charles I, mounted on horseback; very stately and autocratic. Although Charles I would suffer the fate of being decapitated, this picture does make for an interesting propagandist angle. Throughout history it is clearly evident that rulers need images to wield their power. A paintbrush can become just as an important as a sword. In the totalitarian sense, images must be spread far and wide. At the time, engraving was a popular medium in which to distribute a portrait of King Charles I or any royal subject for that matter. And, of course, what is most noticeable is the face. What does the face of King Charles I tell us? Strangely, he seems to be apprehensive just like the horse he is seated upon. Still, there’s a hint of debonair and haughtiness with his raised eyebrow. This grand portrayal is certainly not a Rembrandt portrait with warts and all. You could be tempted to say that without the frontal realism of a face, that this portrait of Charles I makes for a superficial one. But that is not the case. Yes, the subject is commanding and is meant to be so, but he does not strike fear into you. The assured, but also ambiguous expression on him is masterful in execution; essentially what every great artist would be striving for henceforth in portraiture. Indeed, Van Dyck could pull it off effortlessly. And with a king very much concerned with his image, it was a stroke of genius to appoint Van Dyck as the principal painter to his entourage.

At his peak, Van Dyck’s canvases were a lush with a cavalier elegance. He did not enrapture his subjects in eye candy or treat them as effervescent, instead he put them firmly into a society that he was trying to pervade. This society was the English nobility before their Civil War. Like the Impressionists depicted the bourgeois, or like the Rococo artists portrayed French nobility, Van Dyck was immersing himself into the recognizable traits of those societies. He is credited with creating that timeless image of a “Cavalier” style of dress. This is best seen in his attractive picture of “Charles I at the Hunt“. Here, Charles I summons up that fashionable zeitgeist of an era. Charles I was a patron of the arts, so he appears as a chic, formidable monarch who wants to stamp himself upon a time that will truly be remembered as his. Charles I acts as the vessel of a new wave in English culture that will soon be extinguished by his decapitation. He appears as that ruler that is fixed upon his notion of being mandated by God, an interesting contrast to possible uncertainty on his countenance in picture I mentioned earlier. In truth though, Van Dyck’s portraits summon up an age. Charles I becomes immortal, more or less, because Van Dyck possessed the intimate style that would allow such elegance without delving into kitsch.

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2 thoughts on “The Cavalier Artist

  1. You missed out Lawrence – Britain’s best, in my view, although I agree we have rather meager pickings. Three of my favourites are in the US – Lady Peel, Elizabeth Farren and Pinkie.

    • Lawrence is indeed splendid. What do you think of Reynolds and Gainsborough? Although Reynolds is no doubt a very fine painter his “Discourses” in the words of HW Janson, “inhibited the visual capacity of generations of students in England and America.” He went on to say that Reynolds must have “envied” the “instinctive talent” of Gainsborough.

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