L U X U R Y  T R A V E L E R

Samson and Delilah, Van Dyck, Oil on canvas, 152.3 x 232 cm, ca. 1618 - 1620, London, Dulwich Picture Gallery

THE YOUNG VAN DYCK

Madrid - Opening on 20 November, the Museo del Prado will be presenting one of the largest exhibitions on Van Dyck (1599-1641) held to date and the first on his paintings and drawings to be organised in Spain. Focusing entirely on the artist’s early work, the exhibition will feature more than 90 paintings and drawings spanning the years between approximately 1615 when Van Dyck was fifteen, to 1621 when he left Antwerp for Italy. During these six years of his early career the intellectually restless and remarkably prolific young artist produced around 160 paintings, many of them of large scale and creative ambition, of which the Prado possesses the most important collection.

October 2012. Anthony van Dyck is one of the few artists over the course of history to reveal an astonishingly precocious talent. This exhibition opens with a self-portrait of around 1615 executed when he was only fifteen or sixteen. It concludes in 1621, the date when he moved to Italy from his native city of Antwerp. During those six years in Antwerp and until the age of twenty-two, Van Dyck produced more than 160 works including portraits and medium sized compositions as well as around thirty ambitious, large-format paintings. His close relations with Rubens, who employed him as his assistant, gives rise to some of the most interesting questions relating to this period: why did Van Dyck produce some works that were as close as possible to those of his master but distanced himself in others, giving his figures a naturalistic appearance that was quite different to Rubens’ idealization?

Explaining the evolution of this young and often contradictory painter in addition to revealing the remarkable quality of his work at this period are the aims of the present exhibition, which includes fifty-two paintings and forty drawings. This group will manifest Van Dyck’s precocious talent, which is evident not only in the large number of works that he produced but also in their quality. Had he only produced the works of his early period, Van Dyck could still be considered one of the most important painters of the 17th century.

This will be one of the largest exhibitions devoted to the artist to date, the first to be held on his painting in Spain and the first to focus on his early period since the one held at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, in 1980. The Prado has the most important collection of Van Dyck’s early paintings, of which five will be seen in the present exhibition. Aside from the Prado, the most important early works by the artist are now housed in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, and the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Both institutions have supported this project with the loan of works (four from Dresden and two from Saint Petersburg).

Van Dyck, who was Rubens’ most talented pupil, set out to define his style at the very start of his career and this awareness of creating a personal approach was a new concept at the time. His earliest compositions are slightly hesitant and experimental in the depiction of the bodies, as evident in Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (Indianapolis Museum of Art), The Lamentation (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and The drunken Silenus. They reveal Van Dyck’s experimental approach and a pronounced artistic personality that actively sought out new artistic resources in order to increase the impact of the work on the viewer.

In contrast, in works such as The Crowning with Thorns (Museo del Prado) Van Dyck reflects the powerful influence of the time that he spent working for Rubens (1577-1640), which is evident in that work in the similarity of the figures to those of Rubens, although once again it reflects an overall desire to define a personal and individual style. Van Dyck’s interest in textures and in rough, powerfully realistic bodies contrasts with the idealised beauty with which Rubens depicted his figures.

From 1617 or slightly earlier to 1621 Van Dyck worked in Rubens’s studio where he revealed himself superior to the other assistants. This is demonstrated by the fact that he is the only one to be mentioned by name in a contract that Rubens signed and which states that various works should be painted by his hand and by “Van Dyck and other pupils”.

It should be emphasized that despite the closeness that he achieved to Rubens’ style, Van Dyck eventually evolved a highly unique manner, evident in some of the exceptionally original masterpieces to be seen in the present exhibition such as Saint Jerome in the Desert (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) and The Taking of Christ (Museo del Prado), which was probably one of the last works that he executed before leaving for Italy in the autumn of 1621 and the largest composition that he painted during his early period.

The exhibition ends with Van Dyck’s portrait of Rubens’ first wife, Isabella Brandt of 1621 (National Gallery of Art, Washington), which he gave his master as a gift before leaving for Italy, according to contemporary accounts. In that work and other portraits of this period Van Dyck reveals a highly personal style defined by the fluid, slender forms and elegant poses, characteristics that would subsequently make him one of the most influential portraitists in the history of European art.

The Catalogue

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue edited by Friso Lammertse, an expert at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, and Alejandro Vergara, Senior Curator of Flemish Painting at the Prado. It has also benefited from the collaboration of Anne-Marie Logan, a specialist in Flemish drawings, and two other specialists. 

These authors have primarily focused on the remarkably precocious nature of Van Dyck’s abilities, his extremely large output, the surprising fluctuations in his pictorial style and his relations with his master and mentor Rubens.   This publication also includes a technical section that presents the results of studies undertaken on Van Dyck’s works by the Museo del Prado’s Technical Department.  The catalogue is the culmination of an ambitious research project that locates the Museum’s Department of Flemish Painting among the leading centres world-wide for research in this field.

The Exhibition in Detail

I.

In 1609, Van Dyck was apprenticed to Hendrik van Balen, one of the leading painters in Antwerp. From there he probably went to the studio of Rubens, but it is not clear when this happened.   Between approximately 1613 and 1618, the year when he registered as a master in the painters’ guild, Van Dyck worked in a variety of styles. In what are probably his earliest pictures he appears tentative in his rendering of anatomy. But even then he shows a strong personality and an experimental bent, which can be seen in his taste for rugged types and textured surfaces, both of which are different from what was common in Antwerp at the time. Paintings such as the Drunken Silenus and The Lamentation are more accomplished than pictures displayed earlier in this exhibition. They show Van Dyck experimenting with modes of expression associated with Venetian and early Netherlandish painting.

II.

In 1618, the year when he became an independent master, Van Dyck painted four portraits which are among only seven dated works made during his youth. In that same year he probably also painted his first public commission: Christ Carrying the Cross made for the church of the Dominicans in Antwerp.   From approximately 1617 to 1621, Van Dyck worked in the studio of Rubens, and at the same time painted independently, in a style that combines the influence of Rubens with a strong personal manner, visible in the painterly passages and the rugged, un-idealized facial types. Paintings produced in this original mixture of personal and borrowed elements can be seen in this exhibition. They are surprisingly powerful and mature works for an artist who was around 18 to 21 years of age.

III.

Van Dyck collaborated with Rubens from at least 1617 until 1621. In the studio he was one of a team of collaborators that assisted the master painting parts of his pictures, or making variants that Rubens would retouch to some degree. Eventually his status within the studio outgrew that of other collaborators. In March of 1621, Rubens signed a contract where it was stipulated that a group of paintings were to be executed by Rubens himself and by ‘Van Dyck with some other pupils.’ None of the other pupils was mentioned by name. Rubens coached Van Dyck, who reached a point where he could imitate the master´s style to perfection. He made drawings that Rubens used as models in his paintings, and drawings after the master´s pictures so that they could be engraved. Rubens also favoured the young artist by allowing him to use his drawings and models (as occurs in Christ crowned with Thorns).

IV.

Throughout his youth, we perceive in the art of Van Dyck a sense of quest which is manifest in his frequent changes in style. Probably at the same time as he worked for Rubens and came up with a personal version of the master´s style, he also developed a distinctive manner of his own. This can be seen in works where he used an original cast of characters, where he is less concerned with three-dimensional volume, and where he shows a taste for sweeping strokes of the brush and highly stylized forms.  These characteristics are present in paintings such as Saint Sebastian Bound for Martyrdom and The Betrayal of Christ, which are probably among the last paintings that he made before his departure from Antwerp to Italy in the autumn of 1621.  Two versions of a painting of Saint Jerome are exhibited nearby. The practice of making several versions of a composition was not uncommon from the time of the Renaissance, but it was exploited by Van Dyck to an unusual degree, allowing him to increase his profits.

V.

Some of Van Dyck´s portraits can be dated to the period shortly before he left Antwerp in October of 1621 for a seven year stay in Italy. We know this because some portraits show sitters that he met during a visit to the English court, between October 1620 and March 1621. Also, several sources inform us that he painted a portrait of Rubens´ wife Isabella Brant as a gift for his master shortly before he left Antwerp. In these paintings, we see the marks of a personal manner, defined by stylized, fluent forms and the elegant poses. These would become trademark features later in his life, making him one of the most influential portrait painters in European art. It is remarkable that an artist who had been so close to Rubens could also paint in such a personal, fluid way; it may be seen as a measure of his will to be independent.

 

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 We are grateful to the Museo del Prado for providing us with this outstanding news release. The editors