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Van Dyck & Britain at Tate Britain
From 18th of February to 17th of May 2009
Prepare to be looked down on by dozens of supercilious people. You are stepping into the world of the swagger portrait. And, for the British at least, the Antwerp-born arriviste Anthony Van Dyck was its defining master. To gaze upwards at his grandest and glossiest - and sometimes most ridiculous - confections is to be dazzled by the splendours of the Stuart court.

This is a world of people with little pointy beards or pale, exposed bosoms for whom status is an heirloom and respect a birthright. Standing on the stage-set of their inbred beliefs, they fall with what Van Dyck presents as an effortless dignity into their roles. You can almost hear the opulent rustle of silks as you wander among them, smell the fragrant musk of their freshly plucked roses.

Van Dyck was a master of the aristocratic portrait. But perhaps it was precisely this skill that has led us to underestimate his talent - and not least in a contemporary era in which we seem increasingly expected to apologise for privilege, in which an Eton education can present a PR problem and the Bullingdon Club is a badge of shame.

Van Dyck was hardly a democrat. He reveled in his aristocratic connections and the riches they could bring and so became known (perhaps wrongly) as a vain and ambitious snob, lacking the intellectual calibre of his great mentor, Rubens, the profound humanity of his Dutch contemporary Rembrandt or the insight and scepticism of his fellow court artist Velázquez. For all his virtuosity as a painter we tend often to relegate him to the second division. The role of this show should be to make us rethink.

Van Dyck & Britain - unlike the grand retrospective in 1999 with which the Royal Academy celebrated the 400th anniversary of his birth - has a relatively narrow focus. It looks specifically at the two periods Van Dyck spent in London. He first arrived in 1620, a precociously talented pupil of Rubens, on a mysterious special mission to the court of King James I. The visit was abruptly curtailed. No one knows why but this show fuels one suspicion by hanging an image of the lecherous old monarch in uncomfortable proximity to a self-portrait by his elegantly fey guest. James was known for propositioning any young courtier who took his fancy and Van Dyck would not have taken kindly to it. By the time he returned in 1632, however, the old King was dead and Van Dyck remained to serve Charles I for a decade or so.

In a show that sets this ambitious painter in the context of his competitors, it is easy to understand why he made his name. English portraits of the time were stiff little dolls encrusted with symbols of status. And if, on his first visit, Van Dyck's reckless bravura appeared raw and unfinished, tastes had developed by the time he returned.

Charles I, as the Prince of Wales, had paid his bizarre incognito visit to Madrid. He had seen the Raphaels, Titians and Rubens of the Spanish court. How this connoisseur must have longed for such masterpieces to enliven his gloomy Whitehall gallery. Van Dyck must have arrived as some answer to his dreams. Compare the stylistic flair of his wonderfully eloquent 1621 portrait of the Earl of Arundel with the plodding competence of an image in which Daniel Mytens tries to imitate him and you can see why the court's incumbent painters were so demoralised by the arrival of this Netherlandish newcomer.

With single-minded ambition, Van Dyck had absorbed what his forbears could teach him with rapid efficiency. He was obsessed with Titian and the rich sensual colouring of the Venetian Renaissance. He was an admirer of Rubens (who had himself revered Titian). This Tate Britain show emphasises this by including a token work by each of these influential masters in its display. It encourages the visitor to look at the way in which the lively compositions and deep vibrant palette of the former and the evocative sensuality and vivid Baroque dramas of the latter were introduced by Van Dyck to British culture.

This was spectacularly successful when it came to capturing the magnificence of the Caroline court: the larger-than-life drama of Charles I as he appears before us, a knight in shining armour on a high-stepping white horse. Removed from its elaborate gilt frame, this enormous canvas's trompe l'oeil effect is heightened further. Van Dyck presents us with visual proof of the divine right of kings.

Seeing their diminutive monarch invested with such awe-inspiring majesty, their snaggle-toothed Queen Henrietta Maria transformed into a paragon of pale beauty, the aristocracy sought out the author of these dazzling tricks. At the heart of this Tate show the visitor runs the gamut of 17th-century grandees. Here the ruling classes appear like some great race set apart. We gaze up slavishly, past the elegant curves of prosperous stomachs, into the far-off refinements of faces so elevated they seem hardly earthly. Here, sashed in uniforms, decked out in ruffles and pompoms and frills and furbeloes, are people of superior power. Huge dogs grow obedient at a languorous touch. Ships burn in the background at their behest. Exotic countries become colonies as they fall underfoot.

But as Van Dyck entered into what is probably the most important painter-monarch relationship in art history, he also captured a gentler, more intimate face of royalty. He presented the devotion of the king as a suitor, his love as a husband, his tenderness as the father of a happy family. Sadly the Tate presents his superlative 1632 double portrait with Henrietta Maria in a miniature copy. But it does display the monumental The Greate Peece, in which the visitor is granted an audience with a relaxed and affectionate Royal Family, a picture of mutual devotion intended to serve as a model on which the whole nation could be built.

It is on the more subtle complexity of such images - rather than on the ostentatious flamboyance - that Van Dyck's lasting reputation should rest. He might have been able to work at fantastic speed, his brush skipping exuberantly over the canvas, prepared to miss entire passages as long as the overall look is good. But take your time and pause where Van Dyck himself paused. Look at the more patient passages of his work: see the tense anxiety on the face of the ambassador Robert Shirley, for instance. He may seem like he has gone mad in the dressing-up box but his wary look speaks of an awkward diplomatic mission. Look at the ruthless authority that knots the facial muscles of the 1st Earl of Stafford. Can you see the course lout emerging from behind the aging mask of the Earl of Pembroke?

Van Dyck could dramatise the public and the private, the outer and the inner self. You have only to look at an exquisite - if unflattering - drawing of his sleeping mistress to see how observant he could be. Here is a painter who understands how flesh betrays us, how it sags and bags and bunches and slumps, pinches and stretches, tenses and slacks. He paints the legacy that character leaves on the face. In his best works we can read it like an inscription.

And look at his portraits of children. These youngsters are more than mere dynastic accoutrements. That tiny baby that the Queen dandles affectionately goes round-eyed as it pops up a postprandial burp. The eloquent little faces that peep dark-eyed from their fancy costumes survey the future perils of their incomprehensible fates.

This show misses many of the greatest works (where is the self-portrait with sunflowers or King Charles from three angles or Lady Digby on her deathbed?) and tails off into a series of canvases by followers that serve merely to show how inferior his imitators mostly were. To copy the pioneering double format of his friendship portrait is to miss the point of the piece, a moving and characterful tribute dressed up as a study of two lads out on the town. The swaggering rhetoric revived by his followers was the least of Van Dyck's skills. His greatest pieces are not about posturing. They are about real people. And to see his finest works go back to the pieces in which he looks most closely at Titian. His relationship with the Venetian master was probably even more important to him than that with the King. And, where he looks at his works most closely, he can paint portraits that rival the greatest of any age.

Image and text by

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