Van Dyck

Just another WordPress site



’Van Dyck at the Edward Worth Library’ is a research project led by students on the M.Phil. programme Art + Ireland at Trinity College Dublin 2016-17. The project was designed to enable students to work as a team in producing original art-historical research based on a first-hand engagement with important primary sources in Dublin collections. It would not have been possible without the collaboration of the Edward Worth Library and the enthusiasm and expertise of its Librarian, Elizabethanne Boran.

Image 1: Engraved title page of Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641).

The chosen object is Worth’s copy of the Icones principum virorum doctorum, pictorum chalcographorum statuariorum nec non amatorum picturae artis numero centum ab Antonio Van Dyck pictore ad vivum expressae eiusque sumptibus aeri incisae, printed at Antwerp in 1646 by Gillis Hendricx. This volume contains a series of over one hundred portrait prints of famous contemporaries based on prototype images by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), known as the Iconography. Nowadays a comparatively rare object in itself, this appears to be the only example to be seen in Ireland. Judging from the contents of Edward Worth’s library, he was first and foremost a bibliophile and not a print collector. His luxury bound edition is likely, therefore, to testify to his demonstrable interest in collecting books, as well as an obvious historical interest in the individuals represented in the volume. These interests probably motivated Worth to acquire a later edition of the Iconography, Le cabinet des plus beaux portraits de plusieurs princes & princesses, hommes illustres, fameux peintres & autres: faits par le fameux Antoine Van Dyck, printed in 1723 at The Hague.

Image 2: Title page of Le cabinet des plus beaux portraits (The Hague, 1723).

Van Dyck appears to have begun his series of portrait prints in the late 1620s, with first impressions of his own etchings appearing in the early 1630s. In 1632 he went to England as the painter to King Charles I (1600-1649). He directed the project from there, working remotely with his publisher Martin van den Enden (1605-1673), in the completion of the series. Van Dyck maintained consistency and uniformity in this series by providing painted grisaille models for the printmakers to follow. Prints appeared intermittently before the artist’s death in 1641; a set of eighty is believed to have been published, but without a title page. The artist’s intention that they be seen collectively as a set is supported by the first editions and subsequent bound albums / volumes of the series. The prints are unnumbered and were made over a number of years, so they could be arranged in any number of ways. The first known full edition is that published by Gillis Hendricx (fl. 1640-1677), in 1645. According to its title page, this comprised one hundred images, although the precise make-up of the images has long foxed collectors and art historians alike. In both Worth’s copy and that of the British Museum, the ‘5’ in 1645 has been changed manually to read ‘1646’.

The Iconography sits within the long-established representational tradition of series of portraits of famous men – Uomini Famosi – which came out of the Renaissance and the images fulfill the basic function of portraiture as commemoration and memorialization. In Van Dyck’s series, the individuals represented are all illustrious contemporaries and according to the 1645 title page comprise the following categories: “Principum / Vivorum Doctorum / Pictorum Chalcographorum Statuariorum nec non Amatorum Pictoriae Artis” (Princes / scholars / painters, engravers, sculptors and lovers of the art of painting). The princes, generals, statesmen, and scholars in the series are conventional types of illustrious and socially important men which characterize such series. This one is highly unusual, however, in that the largest proportion of images is made up of artists – painters and printmakers – and collectors. The obvious precedents here are the woodcut portraits in Giorgio Vasari’s second edition of the Lives of the Artists (1568) and the Northern response to this in Hieronymous Cock’s series of twenty two portraits of artists with verse inscriptions, Pictorum Aliquot Celebrium Germaniae Inferioris Effigies, published in Antwerp (1572).

 Image 3: Jan de Wael I (1558-1633). Fig. 78 in book.

The criterion for Van Dyck’s selection of portraits of artists and collectors was his friendship with these sitters. For example, while the painter Jan de Wael I (1558-1633), would not be considered among the most important Flemish artists of his time, Van Dyck was received by him on his travels in Italy in the early 1620s and this acquaintance, in turn, merited his presence in the Iconography. The very inclusion of artist acquaintances in the Iconography guaranteed their lasting fame. In their portraits, Van Dyck did not avail of allegorical elements or lengthy inscriptions, preferring to concentrate attention on their likeness in the prints. In only a few cases – some sculptors and printmakers – are the artists represented with the identifying attributes of their profession. In the case of Simon Vouet (1590-1649), he is shown with a book which is entitled “TRATTATO DELLA / NOBILI[T]A DELL’PITTURA” (Treatise on the nobility of painting). It is this idea that underpins the portraits – art is a liberal pursuit, an activity of the mind, not merely the hand, and a noble one, which is reflected in the socially elevated condition of its practitioners. Hence, the common factor in the representation of artists in the Iconography is that they are dressed as gentlemen. Two, significantly, are denominated as knights; one is Van Dyck himself, shown in the engraving by Lucas Vorsterman (1595-1675), with a gold chain and the identifying inscription D. ANTHONIS VAN DYCK. EQVES, and the other is his mentor Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

Image 4:  Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Fig. 34 in book.

Van Dyck’s authorship of the portraits is the determining factor of value in the series. One of the artist’s motivations in making the series may have been to broadcast his own achievements and artistic ideas as a portraitist, and to cement his fame in this genre. Van Dyck was more committed to portraiture than any of his Flemish contemporaries and enjoyed a distinguished international reputation. He was seen as a modern Titian (c. 1488-1576), in terms of his dedication and inventiveness in portraiture, and this is demonstrated – albeit within the limitations of black and white prints – in the range of dynamic and dramatized poses which animate the half-length format used throughout the series. The fact that the images are by a great portrait artist himself means that the series can be considered as a work of art in itself. Print collectors, therefore, were not merely motivated to acquire them for the importance of the sitter, but by the aesthetic quality of the works themselves. This can be seen in the magic of Van Dyck’s own etchings (a reproductive technique that is close to drawing on paper), and in the graphic expertise of the best professional engravers of the time in Antwerp: Schelte à Bolswert (1586-1659), Pieter de Jode the Younger (1606-1674), Paulus Pontius (1603-1658), and Lucas Vorsterman (1595-1675), in translating his portraits into print. They were admired by collectors and connoisseurs as outstanding examples of the printmaker’s art. The most senior among these collaborators was Vorsterman, who used a mixed method of etching and engraving which was much appreciated at the time. Vorsterman and Pontius, moreover, enjoyed the distinction of having their portraits etched by Van Dyck himself.

This online exhibition not only reproduces images of each portrait but also explores the Iconography from a number of different perspectives. Our students have concentrated on the following themes: Van Dyck’s life and portraiture;  the techniques and people involved in the production of the Iconography; the factors determining the choice of sitters; how dress indicated status; the economics of producing such as complex work; the influence of the Iconography and, finally, the provenance of Worth’s copy.

There is still work to do on this remarkable book. One area concerns the inscriptions on the portraits. One of the virtues of the print format is that it can carry text – which normally identified the sitter and referred to the character and deeds of the person – and which is sometimes key for an interpretation of the image. While these are transcribed in secondary sources, they are only very rarely translated. So, there is scope to undertake this task with salient examples in the Iconography. This is, however, entirely in the spirit of this research enterprise, which is to provide a starting point for future study by others of this remarkable volume, one of the early-modern treasures of European art in an Irish Library.


Joaneath Spicer, ‘Anthony van Dyck’s Iconography: An Overview of its Preparation’, in Susan J. Barnes and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (eds.), Van Dyck 350 (Washington, 1994), pp. 327-364.

Carl Depauw and Ger Luijten (eds.), Anthony van Dyck as a Printmaker (Antwerp, 1999).

Simon Turner (comp.) and Carl Depauw (ed.), The New Hollstein: Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings, and Woodcuts, 1450-1700. Anthony van Dyck, 9 vols. (Rotterdam, 2002), Parts I-III.

Victoria Sancho Lobis, ‘Van Dyck’s Legacy: The Artist as Subject and the Vitality of the Portrait Print’, in Victoria Sancho Lobis (ed.), Van Dyck, Rembrandt and the Portrait Print, (Chicago, 2016), pp. 35-71.