Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 9, 2016
Stijn Alsteens and Adam Eaker Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture Exh. cat. New York and New Haven: Frick Collection and Yale University Press, 2016. 320 pp.; 278 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300212051)
Exhibition schedule: Frick Collection, New York, March 2–June 5, 2016
Anthony van Dyck. Self-Portrait (ca. 1620–21). Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Jules Bache Collection, 1949.

Assembled from roughly forty different public and private collections, the exhibition Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture, curated by Stijn Alsteens and Adam Eaker, brought together more than one hundred paintings, drawings, and prints by Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) and his contemporaries. Perhaps not coincidentally, the exhibition appeared exactly twenty-five years after another landmark Van Dyck show in New York—Christopher Brown’s groundbreaking The Drawings of Anthony van Dyck at the Morgan Library. Though separated by a quarter century, the two are conceptually linked, each taking as its starting point Van Dyck’s prodigious abilities as a draftsman. While the earlier show at the Morgan focused on a broad range of subject matter, the Frick’s exhibition, as its title suggests, looks exclusively at portraiture, with special attention given to the way drawings (which account for nearly half the exhibited works) highlight Van Dyck’s inimitable process as a portraitist.

Both exhibition and catalogue were, as the exhibition’s introductory text informed visitors, “arranged chronologically around the geographic chapters of Van Dyck’s career,” a time-tested method for approaching the artist’s work. For practical reasons, large, independent paintings were displayed in each of two upstairs galleries, while the lower floor was given over to drawings and oil sketches. A separate installation in the first floor Cabinet explored the Iconographie (begun ca. 1627) and a handful of works by Van Dyck’s collaborators in print.

The exhibition’s first gallery, also its smallest, presented only three works, two early painted self-portraits and a contemporary head study for which Van Dyck likely also served as the model (cats. 2–4). The judicious juxtaposition of these intimately scaled paintings elucidated Van Dyck’s protean abilities with the brush—a master whose talents, even before his eighteenth birthday, refused to be circumscribed by any one approach to painting. Nowhere is this more visible than in the craggy topography of the artist’s Self-Portrait from Vienna (ca. 1613–15; cat. 2), a work that finds few stylistic parallels with the smoothly blended Self-Portrait from Antwerp of only several years later (ca. 1615–17; cat. 3). Van Dyck’s youthful interest in his own visage, much like Rembrandt’s roughly a decade later, suggests the degree to which he understood the value of self-promotion. As both depictions of the artist and specimens of his unique abilities, such works served him well as he positioned himself to become the preferred portraitist to Europe’s social and political elite.

The second gallery took up Van Dyck’s drawn portrait studies in earnest, focusing on his First Antwerp Period (1613–21), Italian Period (1621–27), and Second Antwerp Period (1627–32, 1634–35). The chronological range of works exhibited in the gallery was due in large part to the comparative paucity of surviving portrait sketches prior to Van Dyck’s return to Antwerp. As Alsteens’s informative catalogue essay notes, only three of Van Dyck’s portrait drawings executed before his Italian sojourn survive (coincidentally all in U.S. public collections). It is a testament to the esteem in which the show’s curators are held that they were able to secure all three for the exhibition (cats. 6, 7, and 13).

Arguably the most intriguing drawing in this group is Van Dyck’s study of the Jesuit missionary Nicolas Trigault in Chinese costume (cat. 7), prominently installed on one of two temporary walls at the center of the gallery. Until recently, the drawing was attributed to Peter Paul Rubens based on comparison with three similar sheets, one of which appeared beside it in the exhibition (cat. 8). Despite their close proximity in size, the drawings spoke volumes about the artists’ differing sensibilities. Rubens meticulously delineated each of the folds of Trigault’s Chinese attire and, as he was wont to do, modeled the missionary’s features aux trois crayons to heighten his lifelike appearance. Van Dyck, by contrast, restricted himself to virtuoso lines in black chalk augmented by a handful of deftly applied passages of blue-green fabricated chalk (perhaps, as the catalogue entry and label state, borrowed from Rubens, who likewise employed it in his own drawing) to capture the essence of the drapery folds. In its sheer economy of line, the drawing in many ways heralds, as one contemporary put it, Van Dyck’s later studies “in suden lines, as angles.”

As in subsequent galleries, the installation of the second gallery made intelligent use of the physical space to signal different aspects of Van Dyck’s drawn oeuvre and highlight his artistic progression. The first wall at left showcased seven drawings dating to Van Dyck’s Italian and Antwerp periods, with special focus on two of his principal patrons in the first half of the 1630s, Johann of Nassau-Siegen and Cesare Scaglia. The four drawings on view (two of which are double-sided) for commissions granted by these figures formed a remarkably coherent group, not least because one of the works (cat. 28) includes a study for a standing portrait of Johan on its recto and, on its verso, two studies of Scaglia’s head for a finished painting, exhibited upstairs (cat. 26). The rest of the gallery’s exterior walls were given over to drawings and oil sketches for the Iconographie—a subject explored further in the upstairs Cabinet—and a similar series of works portraying Van Dyck’s friend and patron, Nicolaas Rockox (cats. 54–56). An object lesson in Van Dyck’s meticulous and often idiosyncratic approach to a project whose genesis has both spurred admiration and defied understanding, this remarkable assemblage of drawings and grisailles—described as the largest ever on public display—testified to Van Dyck’s unerring capacity for innovation in pose and gesture.

If Van Dyck’s preparatory drawings for the Iconographie are among his most finished portrait drawings, the English Period works (1632–34, 1635–41), to which the majority of the third and final gallery on the lower floor was devoted, stand at the opposite end of the spectrum. Much like the sketches executed in the Second Antwerp Period, they tend to indicate only the general layout of the sitter’s pose and costume with little concern for facial features (a notable exception being Van Dyck’s unusually large black-chalk study of Charles I [cat. 69]).

Few, however, would argue with the notion that the true showstoppers in this gallery were the three oil sketches made in preparation for a lost monumental group portrait destined for the Brussels town hall (cats. 31–33). Installed like a triptych with partially opened wings on temporary walls in the center of the gallery, these secular subjects elicited, for this reviewer at least, a near-religious experience. And, like many a religious narrative, these works offered both warning and instruction to the viewer—in this case about the inherent risks when museums deaccession works entrusted to the public good in order to raise funds for new acquisitions. Since 1952, the then-overpainted Portrait Study of a Man, Facing Right (ca. 1634; cat. 32) belonged to the Saint Louis Art Museum. Generally regarded as a copy, the painting was sold by the museum in 2010 to raise funds for future acquisitions and was only subsequently identified as an autograph head study for this important commission.

The two upstairs galleries presented a representative overview of Van Dyck’s activities as a portrait painter, from his earliest dated painting, the bust-length Portrait of a Seventy-Year-Old Man (1613; cat. 1)—an exceptionally precocious work for a painter still in his early teens but one that sheds comparatively little light on Van Dyck’s subsequent success in the genre—to his grand, multi-figure English Period portraits. Among the most enjoyable aspects of the exhibition (of which there were many) were the four instances in which the curators displayed preparatory drawings and finished paintings side-by-side. It was perhaps fitting that within this group were some of the exhibition’s masterpieces, including the portraits of Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio (cats. 14 and 15), Nicholas Lanier (cats. 20 and 21), and François Langlois (cats. 95 and 96).

A further aspect of Van Dyck’s artistic process, crucial to the exhibition’s thesis, was borne out by paintings such as the portrait of Edmund Varney (cat. 89) and the unfinished anonymous, possibly pregnant, woman from Louisville (cat. 90). In each case the sitter’s head is framed by a “rough halo” that delineates the boundary between Van Dyck’s contribution and that of his studio assistants. The show closes with two smaller-scale portraits of Margaret Lemon (cat. 92) and Mary Ruthven (cat. 94), Van Dyck’s mistress and wife, respectively, which testify both to his intimacy with the sitters and his undiminished abilities toward the end of his life.

The exhibition’s aforementioned catalogue, with essays by Alsteens and Eaker, and contributions by An Van Camp, Xavier F. Salomon, and Bert Watteeuw, is a treasure trove of information on Van Dyck as a portraitist. Alsteens provides a thorough overview of Van Dyck’s portrait drawings, demonstrating his rather unconventional approach when compared to the work of his Flemish predecessors and contemporaries, while Eaker discusses the unflagging interest in the artist’s portraits up to the present day. Aside from a few minor quibbles (for instance, under cat. 62, one wishes the author had addressed the fact that the drawing is unique among the exhibited works for its execution in the same sense as the engraving), the catalogue entries—more than a few of which publish newly accepted works—are extensively researched and accessibly written with complete provenances and literature and beautiful full-page color images of each work.

John Hawley
Curatorial Research Fellow, Paintings before 1800, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston