Van Dyck

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Self-portrait: An Artist’s Biography

Image 1: Anthony van Dyck, Self-portrait. Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:

Many biographies of the Flemish born, English portrait painter, Anthony van Dyck start with similar chapters titled, The Young Van Dyck. But how simple it would be to replace Young with any other word and to fill in the blank with adjectives like Middle-Aged, Old, Womanizing, Charismatic, or perhaps more obvious, Painter. It is found that each new word alludes to a different persona, a different chapter, a different tale in the life of one man. The interchangeable blank, with infinite potentials, is the space in which Anthony van Dyck lived his life. It is in the blank where we find our story. We find the legend of a figure who gave birth to a new style of English portraiture, who inspired the likes of Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Lawrence. We find the personality of prodigy, his extravagance, his temperament, and everything that went along with that. In the blank of his life, we watch the son of a wealthy merchant grow from an effortlessly talented young apprentice into Charles I’s most prized master. Evidence of the tale of this man is not found in the way those who knew him depicted him in letters and anecdotes, but rather found in how he painted and presented himself and how he painted and presented his sitters. To illustrate that blank with portraits and genre paintings will be to explore and illuminate the life of Anthony van Dyck.

On 22 March 1599, in the wealthy heart of Antwerp, Maria Cuypers gave birth to the seventh child and second son of Frans van Dyck. As a prosperous fabrics merchant and well-known pillar of the community, a professional artist was perhaps the last thing Frans van Dyck expected his son to be. However, it came as no surprise, as multiple Cuypers had been registered artists in the Antwerp Painters Guild.[1] Anthony van Dyck was born into a stable, closely-knit, and pious family. He remained close with his sisters, Susanna and Isabella, both nuns, until the end. His brother, Theodoor was a priest and his father was the president of the lay Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament. Well-off and established, Van Dyck grew up in an unblemished home, giving a smooth start to his story.

To jump into the colourful, artistic life of Anthony van Dyck, is to travel to 1609, where ten-year-old Van Dyck has just been apprenticed to the studio of Hendrick van Balen, the Dean of the artists’ guild of Saint Luke.[2] Van Balen, a conservative practitioner of the Italianate style, ultimately had no lasting effect on Van Dyck. However, it was in Van Balen’s Antwerp studio, where Anthony van Dyck learned the fundamentals of painting, such as grinding pigment and preparing canvases. Van Dyck would have also trained his hand by copying Italian and Flemish masters.[3] In 1615, after six years under Van Balen, it remains unknown whether Van Dyck was still in the master’s studio. It has been proposed, albeit discredited, that Van Dyck was an independently practicing artist.[4] A five to six-year apprenticeship was the normal term.[5] Regardless of professional status, the adolescent Van Dyck was already an appreciated artist.

The young Van Dyck, as it were, serves as the first visual blip on the timeline of Anthony van Dyck’s life. Self-portrait, 1615 in the Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts (Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste) in Vienna, captures the artist at sixteen years of age.[6] The young boy locks eyes with the viewer over his shoulder with a gaze of lazy engagement or indifference. Wisps of a boyish mop frame his youthfully round face. A single stroke of white paint defines his shirt. It is a confident portrait painted with a confident hand. Brushstrokes appear effortlessly as a single swipe gives the allusion of a full shirt. A talent only set to grow and flourish with time.

Image 2: Anthony van Dyck, St Peter. Oil on panel.
Image is used from, courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

In 1617, Van Dyck began to collaborate with the master painter, Peter Paul Rubens.[7] Recently returned from Italy, Rubens made a huge splash in the artistic centre that was Flanders. His two commissioned altarpieces, The Descent from the Cross, 1612-14, and The Elevation of the Cross, 1610, single-handedly inspired a wave of new stimulation in Antwerp.[8] Rubens owed much to the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael.[9] He certainly made a lasting impression on the young Van Dyck, and his influence is immediately seen in the tortured emotions of Van Dyck’s portraits from that year. St Peter, 1617-18, in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (Image 2), depicts a repenting Saint Peter, holding a key in his right hand, desperately begging forgiveness. Although moving, the expression found on Saint Peter’s face is uncharacteristic of Van Dyck’s later work.[10] St Peter is touched by the Italian and Baroque leaning of Rubens.

Image 3: Peter Paul Rubens (and workshop), Achilles discovered by Ulysses and Diomedes. Oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid:
Photo © Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Van Dyck never apprenticed under Rubens, however he did take up residence in the master’s studio. Here, he continued his education and polished his craft. He quickly became one of Rubens’ most trusted and closest assistants.[11] Van Dyck vigorously and diligently studied his master to the point of imitation.[12] As the studio quickly became a centre of flourishing Flemish art, Van Dyck met a wide range of new people, many of whom appear in his Iconography.[13] Rubens studio was run as a place of collaboration and training through experience. Achilles discovered by Ulysses and Diomedes, 1617-1618, in the Prado Museum, Madrid (Image 3), is just that – a collaboration between Van Dyck and Rubens.[14] Attributed to Van Dyck’s hand are the figures occupying the right, Ulysses and Diomedes, who appear in replication in Van Dyck’s The Brazen Serpent, 1618-1620, also in the Prado Museum, Madrid (Image 4).

Image 4: Anthony van Dyck, The Brazen Serpent. Oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid:
Photo © Museo del Prado, Madrid.

As Van Dyck grew as an artist, he began to develop his own style. He elaborated on traditionally sombre and objective images in his commissioned portraits, such as coats of arms, chairs, architectural settings, and adding fabricated palace backgrounds.[15] Despite this, his lively full-length portraits were still able to communicate the personality of the sitter. Around 1620 and into the 1630s, Van Dyck travelled first to England and then toured Italy. He completed several distinguished portraits, building his reputation. Best reflecting his personal and professional growth are his self-portraits produced during his travels. In Self-portrait, 1620-21, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Image 1), much like his early self-portrait, shows the artist self-assured and confident as ever. He had evolved from an eager teen into a haughty patron of the courts. He does not present himself as an artist in the studio, but as an independent professional.[16]

By 1632, Charles I’s new Stuart court not only had developed a preference for foreign artists but required a new aesthetic to separate itself from that of the Tudor’s.[17] Van Dyck, with his Grand Manner style, satisfied both of those requirements and was called to England. Charles I, the greatest patron and collector of the arts to be crowned, shared an admiration of Titian with Van Dyck, whose style held great influence over Van Dyck.[18] The pair got along famously, as it is said the king often attended Van Dyck’s parties.[19] However, Van Dyck had his work cut out for him. The King and Queen were not known as attractive and Van Dyck often had to manipulate the figures of both in their portraits.[20] In Charles I with M. de St Antoine, 1633, in the Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace, Van Dyck used an elaborated victory arch to make Charles appear more triumphant and commanding.[21] He even foreshortened the figure in the front to suggest that Charles, on a powerful stallion, was towering over the viewer. In his, Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, c. 1637, in the National Gallery, London, Van Dyck depicted Charles, to the best of his ability, as a reincarnation of Marcus Aurelius.[22] Referencing victorious Rome emperors, Van Dyck reiterated Charles’ power and grace.

During his time as a court painter, Van Dyck’s studio flourished. Although his main obligation was to Charles I and his family, Van Dyck’s production rate sky-rocketed. Each sitter was allotted an hour, in which Van Dyck would sketch the sitter’s face and mock up a pose in chalk. The sketches then went to an assistant, who brought the painting to life. Finally, Van Dyck would finish the head and touch up the rest of the portrait. As art historian Moir discusses, it is believed that the characteristically long, elegant fingers of sitters belonged to the studio model.[23] While Van Dyck composed at least over fifty portraits for the royal family, his studio hands reproduced copies of previous portraits on a mass scale, often without supervision from their master.[24]

As Van Dyck’s professional reputation soared, so too did his personal reputation. Anecdotes about Van Dyck’s personal life in context with his portraits illuminate a man equal to the intrigue and grandeur of his paintings. It was common knowledge that Van Dyck kept a mistress by the name of Margaret Lemon, who was known for her beauty and equally, her temper.[25] She detested when Van Dyck painted a female sitter without a chaperone.[26] Allegedly, when she found out Van Dyck was to marry Mary Ruthven, she attempted to mutilate him by biting his right thumb.[27] Regardless, Van Dyck married Mary Ruthven in 1640 under pressure from the King and Queen. Mary Ruthven is shown to be an equally formidable woman in her portrait, Mary, Lady Van Dyck, c. 1640, in the Prado Museum, Madrid (Image 5).

Image 5: Anthony van Dyck, Mary, Lady Van Dyck. Oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid:
Photo © Museo del Prado, Madrid.

In 1640, Van Dyck returned to Antwerp on the heels of Rubens’ death. However, he found no commissions and reluctantly returned to an increasingly unstable London. The increasing political turmoil in England hardly affected Van Dyck as he had fallen gravely ill, probably with tuberculosis.[28] In 1641, Mary Ruthven gave birth to Van Dyck’s only legitimate child (he previously had a daughter with Margaret Lemon).[29] He died five days later at the age of forty-two.

Although brief, Anthony Van Dyck lived a full life. A self-assured man, he threw and attended extravagant parties, was a womanizer, and lived affluently. In fact, his rock and roll lifestyle may have led to his early demise. Anthony van Dyck was a prodigy with a talent upon which he floated a life. He is credited with innovating a new style of portraiture, combining aspects of his own ingenuity, Rubens, and Titian.


Christopher Brown, Van Dyck (Oxford, 1982).

Natalia Gritsai, Anthony Van Dyck (Bournemouth and St. Petersburg, 1996).

Alfred Moir, Anthony van Dyck (London, 1994).

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., ‘The Search for ‘The Central Orb’: Van Dyck and his  Historical Reputation’, in Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Susan J. Barnes, and Julius S. Held (eds.), Van Dyck Paintings (Washington, 1990) pp. 11-16.


[1] Christopher Brown, Van Dyck (Oxford, 1982), p. 9.

[2] Ibid., p. 10.

[3] Ibid., p. 10.

[4] Brown, Van Dyck, p. 10; Alfred Moir, Anthony van Dyck (London, 1994), p. 10.

[5] Moir, Anthony van Dyck, p. 10.

[6] Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, ‘Anthonis van Dyck, Selbstbildnis, Inv.-Nr. GG-686’, Bildinformation – Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste, Wien. Available at:

[7] Natalia Gritsai, Anthony Van Dyck (Bournemouth, 1996), p. 20; Moir, Anthony van Dyck, p. 11.

[8] Brown, Van Dyck, p. 21.

[9] Ibid., p. 14.

[10] Gritsai, Anthony Van Dyck, p. 24.

[11] Ibid., p. 20.

[12] Ibid., p. 24.

[13] Ibid., p. 24.

[14] Moir, Anthony van Dyck, p. 12.

[15] Ibid., p. 16.

[16] Ibid., p. 18.

[17] Ibid., p. 32.

[18] Brown, Van Dyck, p. 7.

[19] Moir, Anthony van Dyck, p. 44.

[20] Ibid., p. 34.

[21] Royal Collection Trust, ‘Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) – Charles I (1600-1649) with M. de St Antoine’. Available at:

[22] National Gallery, London, ‘Anthony van Dyck | Equestrian Portrait of Charles I | NG1172 | National Gallery, London’. Available at:

[23] Moir, Anthony van Dyck, p. 33.

[24] Ibid., pp. 33-34.

[25] Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., ‘The Search for ‘The Central Orb’: Van Dyck and his  Historical Reputation’, in Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Susan J. Barnes, and Julius S. Held (eds.), Van Dyck Paintings (Washington, 1990), p. 12.

[26] Moir, Anthony van Dyck, p. 44.

[27] Wheelock, ‘The Search for ‘The Central Orb’, p. 12.

[28] Moir, Anthony van Dyck, p. 45.

[29] Wheelock, ‘The Search for ‘The Central Orb’, p. 12.

Text: Ms. Madison Bowman, M. Phil. in Art History, ART+IRELAND, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Trinity College, Dublin.