There's something odd about the newspaper reproductions that show Sir Anthony van Dyck's portrait of Henry Danvers, Earl of Danby, alongside articles about Treasures from the Hermitage Museum, Russia: Rubens and His Age, the superb new exhibition that recently opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. What you notice first in that picture is a black, crescent-shaped mark on the earl's left cheek. It looks like a printing error, but the gallery's catalogue shows the same crescent, and when finally you get to the exhibition itself (which should be a major attraction for Toronto and its tourists from now till Aug. 12), you discover it's on the surface of the painting -- where, curiously enough, van Dyck painted it, in the late 1630s.
Why? It seems that the earl suffered a facial wound in battle. Wanting his scar celebrated rather than ignored, he wore a patch that drew attention to it --and the patch, being part of his manly self-presentation, became part of the portrait that van Dyck painted when he was official artist at the court of King Charles I, that high-handed monarch who happened also to be the greatest royal art collector in British history.
Though his name isn't in the title, van Dyck turns out to be the star of Rubens and His Age. Peter Paul Rubens himself looks fine in this Canadian selection, which has been organized by the Toronto curators with the help of their St. Petersburg colleagues rather than merely accepted (like the Barnes collection, for instance) as a touring exhibition. It's a rich survey of Flemish Baroque, and its many pleasures include one majestic painter entirely new to me, Frans Pourbus the Younger (1569-1622), whose portrait of Margaret of Savoy stops the show. But the 10 portraits by van Dyck catch him so often at the top of his form that they remind us how great he was and how far wrong art history goes when it takes him for granted as a mere court painter, creator of "swagger portraits."
That notion doesn't survive a viewing of these pictures. He was an artist for hire, but the portraits were treaties formed through delicate negotiation between the artist's eye and the subject's ego. There's flattery here, but truth as well, and insight. In this show, we see him portray Inigo Jones, one of the first great English architects, looking slightly hurt, as if his favourite project had been cancelled. His Ladies-in-Waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria presents two women of infinite vacancy. He depicts a judge, Sir Thomas Chaloner, as rather furtive (though it's possible I'm reading the furtiveness into it; 11 years later, Sir Thomas helped sentence the king to death).
Van Dyck (1599-1641) raced through his career like a sprinter, doing everything sooner and faster than anyone else. He was as much a child prodigy as Picasso. The painter's guild in Antwerp registered him as an apprentice when he was 10, and by 15 he had an assistant. Soon, he was himself assistant to Rubens, making paintings nearly indistinguishable from the master's. He went off to Italy and returned to Antwerp a hero, then moved to London. He died at 42, perhaps of tuberculosis.
The years in Italy may have been his happiest. He went there to study Titian (by then 45 years in the grave) and ever after showed the effect of Titian's skin tones and handling of fabrics. In Italy, prosperity changed van Dyck's personal style. He now had money, and he spent it. He was soon wearing rich clothes and travelling with a retinue of servants. The Hermitage's famous Self-Portrait (1622-23), also at the AGO, tells the story: He depicts himself as a handsome young gentleman with tossed auburn hair and long, shapely hands, leaning on a chunk of ancient pillar that represents his visit to Rome. His look has the patina of success, his lips suggest an eager sensuality. He wears a gorgeous black silk costume over a casual white shirt. He hasn't yet reached his mid-20s, but he knows who he is. His personality jumps out of the 17th century and bounds forward nearly two centuries, making him look like Byron's contemporary.
His appointment by Charles I was a coup of art history, like the meeting of Henry VIII and Holbein. As much as any painter could, van Dyck invented his age's idea of an English aristocrat. Ever since, the world has seen the time of Charles I through his imagination. He became so identified with the court of the 1630s that the English (as a writer in the New Statesman remarked while celebrating van Dyck's 400th birthday in 1999) unconsciously consider him English: after all, he had a British knighthood, a Scottish wife, an English child, a London death, and a London burial.
Moreover, it was in London that he put his brand on art history. He brought to that doomed Stuart court a looser, more natural portrait, to replace the stiff, flat Tudor style. The dukes he painted are indeed dukes, but human. And his best portraits became brilliant essays in the use of surfaces. He loved flesh, but he also loved satin, silk, lace, and damask. He developed a tradition that lived for three centuries, passed down through Reynolds and Gainsborough to Manet and Degas until finally vanishing after the death of John Singer Sargent in 1925.
Van Dyck also burrowed into the English language. A trimmed and pointed beard came to be called a vandyke, because so many of his subjects wore one. The word vandyke also meant a collar with a deeply cut edge, a style depicted in many of his portraits. By extension, vandyke soon meant anything jagged. In an 1891 newspaper, it became a topographical term: "The whole coast is a vandyck of bays and clefts and promontories." And it turned into a verb. In 1898, someone described a castle where "The peaks of three gables rose above them, vandycking the sky." A magazine reported that a drunk "staggering to a bye lane, vandyckd to Farningham." Perhaps Anthony van Dyck isn't respected as much as he hoped and his admirers would like, but he managed to become a verb, a noun and an adjective as well as a maker of unforgettable icons.