Of the 100 prominent public figures featured in the 1645 edition of Iconography, only five are female. The engraved portraits of these women are nevertheless significant. They are captivating representations of individuals who, during their time, were seen by most only in relation to their better-known husbands, fathers, and sons. The images also provide valuable insights into Van Dyck’s artistic style. A careful examination of the subjects and the style of these five portraits helps to place these women both within an historical context and within the artist’s vast catalogue.
Image 1: Marie de’ Medici, Queen of France (1573-1642). Fig. 1 in book.
The five women in the Iconography, like the ninety-five men, were important social and political figures in seventeenth-century Europe. Yet unlike the men chosen, these women were not recognized by most for their own accomplishments, but rather for the achievements of their husbands or relationship to other male relatives. Nevertheless, all five of these women were prominent figures who made important societal contributions, independent of the men in their lives.
Marie de’ Medici is both the first portrait in Iconography and the most politically powerful subject of the collection’s women (Image 1). Marie had strong ties to several great European monarchs both by birth and by marriage. She was the daughter of Francesco de’ Medici (1541-1587), the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and the wife of France’s King Henry IV (1553-1610). Following Henry’s assassination in 1610, Marie became regent for her son, Louis XIII (1601-1643). As regent, she wielded her power wildly, wasting government funds and breaking with diplomatic precedent to establish a controversial political relationship with Spain, France’s longstanding rival. When Louis XIII came of age, Marie refused to step aside. Even after being forced to cede power, Marie continued to meddle in official affairs. She persuaded her son to promote Bishop Richelieu (1585-1642), to the title of Cardinal, and she used her close friendship with Richelieu as means of controlling Louis XIII’s government. She both encouraged and participated in rebellions on more than one occasion, leading to her periodic, and eventually permanent and self-imposed, exile from France.
Image 2: Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, Infanta of Spain (1566-1633). Fig. 3 in book.
Like Marie de’ Medici, Isabella Clara Eugenia enjoyed royal status by both birth and marriage (Image 2). Isabella was the daughter of King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598), and Elizabeth of Valois (1545-1568), who was the French King Henry III’s sister. Given Isabella’s lineage, her parents made several claims in her name to the thrones of both France and England. Their claim in England proposed Isabella as the country’s rightful Catholic heir after the 1587 execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587). When their attempts proved unsuccessful, Philip and Elizabeth married Isabella to Albert VII (1559-1621), the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (1527-1576). With her marriage, Isabella gained both a title – Archduchess of Austria – and a territory – the Spanish Netherlands. During their reign, Isabella and Albert tried to unify the seventeen provinces of the Spanish Netherlands, which had broken apart after the northern region asserted its independence. They were still unsuccessful when Albert died in 1621. After Albert’s death, control of the territory reverted to Spain according to the terms of Isabella’s and Albert’s marriage contract. Isabella returned to Spain, where she served as regent for her nephew, King Philip IV (1605-1665). While in Spain, she joined the Convent of Descalzas and lived out the remainder of her life as a nun.
Image 3: Marguerite of Lorraine, Duchess of Orléans (1615-1672). Fig. 5 in book.
Marguerite of Lorraine became the Duchess of Orléans after marrying Gaston, the Duke of Orléans (1608-1660). Gaston was Marie de’ Medici’s son and Louis XIII’s brother. He gained the title of duke through his marriage to Marie de Bourbon (1605-1627), who died in childbirth. Marguerite and Gaston wed in a secret ceremony in 1634. They were unable to marry officially with the permission of Louis XIII because of political tensions in Europe and Marguerite’s family connections. Marguerite’s brother was the Duke of Lorraine, a province that was in continued conflict with France. Louis XIII finally recognized their marriage shortly before his death in 1643. Although Gaston was involved actively in government affairs, Marguerite led a largely private life and did not have an interest in politics.
Image 4: Mary, Lady van Dyck, née Ruthven. Fig. 20 in book.
Comparatively little is known about the Iconography’s two remaining female subjects. Geneviève d’Urfé was the second wife of Charles Alexandre de Croÿ, the Marquis d’Havré. Although she was accused of participating in her husband’s 1624 assassination, there is no evidence to support this charge. Historians surmise that Charles Alexandre was killed by an attendant in response to an insult. The fifth woman depicted in the Iconography is Van Dyck’s wife, Mary Ruthven (or Ruten) (Image 4). Mary was born into a Scottish family, which, according to the title of her Iconography portrait, was of noble origin. She married Van Dyck near the end of his life, and, because he had been knighted, Mary gained the title of Lady van Dyck. She gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Justine, just eight days before the artist’s death in 1641.
Considered collectively, the portraits of Van Dyck’s ladies offer valuable insight into his portrait style, specifically his depictions of women. As with the Iconography’s other portraits, these five engravings were based upon preparatory works done by Van Dyck. For four of these sitters, Van Dyck completed studies in grisaille, a monochromatic painting technique that uses only shades of grey. These grisaille studies are nearly identical in size to the engraved plates and are much more detailed than the chalk sketches that Van Dyck did for many other Iconography portraits. Mary Ruthven is the only female sitter for which no grisaille study exists. In her case, her engraved portrait is based, not upon a small sketch, but a large painting, composed in 1620 and currently housed in the Prado. Van Dyck’s preparatory contributions to these engravings are indicated by the small note ‘Ant. van Dyck pinxit’. “Pinxit” is Latin for ‘painted’, and indicates that an engraving was based upon a prior painted work by the artist named. Because these engravings were all modelled after works by Van Dyck, they contain elements common to his portraiture style. Specifically, these five likenesses feature the composition, costume, and scenery favoured by the artist.
Each of the five images is typical of Van Dyck’s portraits. The woman appears in the centre of the engraving, with little visible behind her. Any noticeable background is typically sparse. This cropped structure forces the viewer’s focus directly onto the subject and prevents the viewer from being distracted by extraneous detail. Each woman is depicted as a half-length figure, seated or standing, but shown only from the waist up. All five have one or both of their hands resting against their bodies. Van Dyck uses their hands either to hold props or to skilfully call attention to the fine details of their expensive clothing. Marie de’ Medici and Marguerite of Lorraine are shown with their heads and shoulders turned slightly to their right sides, not quite in profile. Their faces are fully visible to the viewer, as are their eyes, which meet the viewer’s gaze directly. Isabella Clara Eugenia, Geneviève d’Urfé, and Mary Ruthven pose in identical fashion, but with their heads and shoulders turned slightly to the left. Their confidence and strength are obvious.
All five women have soft faces with neutral expressions, their lips pressed together but not quite forming smiles. Mary Ruthven is the exception to this unassuming expression. Her face is angled away from the viewer more than the other female sitters, but she cuts her eyes back to meet the viewer’s gaze directly and confidently. Her eyebrows appear to be raised coyly, reflecting her intimate relationship with her artist and suggesting a familiarity with the viewer.
The detailed depiction of clothing and hairstyles within these five engravings is also a common feature of Van Dyck’s portraits. For Marie de’ Medici, Van Dyck draws the viewer’s attention to the texture and volume of the fine fabrics used to craft her costume. Marie wears a satin gown with thick, billowing, slashed sleeves. Both sleeves are fastened by ribbons just above her elbows and end at her wrists in lace cuffs. The bodice of her dress is covered by a stomacher, a decorative and highly detailed piece of cloth frequently worn over a woman’s dress during the seventeenth century. A piece of jewellery sits at the very top of the bodice, suggesting a functional purpose, but serving only an ornamental one. A delicate lace ruff is fastened around her neck and tied in the front in a small bow. Marie wears her hair above her shoulders in a bobbed style. It is curled into loose waves with a short fringe and topped with a headband that runs from her forehead to the back of her head. She wears a long earring in her left ear, which is visible below her hair. Her clothing and hairstyle are fashionable and refined, befitting a woman of her royal status and social standing.
Image 5: Geneviève de Lascaris d’Urfé, Marchioness of Croÿ (1597-1656). Fig. 17 in book.
Marguerite of Lorraine and Geneviève d’Urfé are similarly depicted in the finest fashions. Dressed in almost identical styles, these women are best considered as a pair. Each wears a satin dress with the same billowing slashed sleeves favoured by Marie. At first glance, Marguerite’s dress appears to be less costly than Geneviève’s. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that it is equally fine in construction, fabric, and fit, but favours a simpler style. As in Marie’s portrait, each sleeve on both dresses is tied with a ribbon just above the elbow and has a lace cuff at the wrist. A small bow is fastened to the top of each woman’s bodice. Accompanying the bow on Geneviève’s dress is a small cameo portrait of a man in ancient Roman dress. Each woman wears a ruff which, unlike Marie’s, is secured to the back of the dress, rather than tied around the neck. Both women are adorned in pearls. Marguerite and Geneviève wear strands of pearls around their necks and shoulders. Geneviève wears a third strand around her wrist, and a set of pearl earrings completes her look. Both Marguerite and Geneviève have the same hairstyle as Marie. Marguerite’s hair is styled into loose waves with a straightened fringe cut close to her forehead. Genevieve’s hair, including her fringe, is curled into ringlets and is topped with the same style headband worn by Marie. Just as in Marie’s portrait, Van Dyck uses clothing to signify the wealth and social standing of his sitters.
Van Dyck’s portrait of Mary Ruthven, predictably, is the most intimate of the five. Her costume appears much simpler than those of Marie, Marguerite, and Geneviève, not because her clothing is less than fine, but because she is dressed informally. Mary wears a silk dress. Her sleeves are not tied back, as was customary in formal dress. Instead, they are left to hang loose, with fabric that cascades down her arms. Her upper back and shoulders are bare, uncovered by a ruff. The neckline of her dress is cut low, and she does not wear a bow or piece of jewellery at the top of her bodice. Her bare neck, informal dress, and revealing décolletage suggest a state of partial undress. Her hair, which is fashionably curled into ringlets and topped with a decorative headpiece, and her jewellery, large pearls adorning her neck and ears, suggest her wealth and social status. The combined effect of these adornments is a depiction of Mary as a noble woman caught in time in a relaxed and intimate setting.
The portraits of Marie de’ Medici, Marguerite of Lorraine, Geneviève d’Urfé, and Mary Ruthven all depict wealthy women styled in fashionable dress. The portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia is something of an outlier in this collection. Although she spent so much of her life in the same fine clothing as her fellow Iconography sitters, Isabella was portrayed by Van Dyck in her later years, after she had donned the habit of a nun. She wears a dark-coloured, loose-fitting tunic, topped by a guimpe, a piece of fabric that lays over the front and back of the tunic, covering her neck. The tunic’s sleeves are long and contain an excess of fabric, which pools around Isabella’s arms as they rest against her body. A cincher, a belt made of rope, secures the habit at her waist. Upon her head is a coif, a white cotton headpiece, and a long black veil that covers the coif. Van Dyck depicts Isabella, not as the wife of a wealthy nobleman, but as a simple, modest, and devout woman of the cloth, appearing content that she has chosen this path at the end of her life.
The background imagery and props chosen by Van Dyck are typical of his work. Marie de’ Medici, the most ornately dressed woman in Iconography, stands before a more elaborate background than any of her fellow female sitters. Van Dyck positions Marie either in front of a plate window or upon a terrace, with a cloud-filled sky stretching to fill two thirds of the space behind her. The remainder of the background at far right is covered with a decorative draped fabric. Resting upon a railing just over Marie’s right shoulder is a crown, which indicates her royal status and substantial political power. In her hands, Marie holds several white lilies, a symbol of purity often associated with the Virgin Mary. Together, the decorative drapery, delicate flowers, and fine dress call attention to Marie’s femininity, virtue, and grace. In contrast, the presence of a crown and the visibility of the outside world emphasize her majesty, rank, and authority.
Van Dyck portrays Marguerite of Lorraine and Geneviève d’Urfé in much sparser settings. Both women are inside closed rooms with no outside light or other indication of the natural world. This was a common background for Van Dyck’s female subjects. By placing a woman indoors, Van Dyck emphasized her domestic role, subservience to her husband, and limited access to the outside world. Both Marguerite and Geneviève stand before a wall that is partially covered by a sheet of fabric. Unlike the decorative material behind Marie de’ Medici, both these cloths are simple. The portions of the wall that are uncovered remain plain. Both women use their hands, not to hold any symbolic objects, but to draw the viewer’s attention to their ornate clothing. Van Dyck’s decision to leave Marguerite’s and Geneviève’s surroundings bare and their hands empty allows the viewer to focus upon the two sitters without any distractions. Their clothing, elegance, and grace become the subjects of the portraits.
For his portrait of Mary Ruthven, Van Dyck left the background completely bare. All attention is upon the subject, who commands the viewer’s focus by confidently meeting his gaze. Van Dyck does give his wife a prop: a rosary that she wears around her right wrist and displays with her left hand. The rosary indicates Mary’s strong Catholic faith and her spiritual purity. Religious devotion is also the central theme of Van Dyck’s portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia. Isabella stands before a wall, with a sheet of fabric over her right shoulder partially covering an otherwise bare panel. She is placed in an interior setting similar to those in which Marguerite and Geneviève stand. In this context, however, the close walls indicate not domestic confinement, but religious seclusion. Isabella folds her left hand under her right. Covering her open palms is a prayer cloth, a sacramental object meant to encourage religious thought and prayer. Her setting does not recall the noble origins of her birth, but rather emphasizes only the life of faith that she has chosen.
The five portraits of women included in Iconography are significant works, not just for the glimpses into the historically important figures that they depict, but also for what they reveal about Van Dyck’s portraiture. Each portrait contains clear indications of Van Dyck’s style, including its composition, the subject’s clothing, and the scenery surrounding her. Collectively, the five portraits also disclose clearly the gender biases present during the seventeenth century. Of the 100 portraits included in Iconography, only five are of women. Even assuming that women of the era could only achieve social prominence through the men in their lives, it is worth considering why more female figures were not included. There were royal families throughout Europe, many with easily recognizable and well-known female monarchs, who were not selected for this collection. It is also worth remembering that, for the time, even five of a hundred was a significant number. In an era when ladies had few liberties and little independent social standing, it was remarkable for a woman to be considered among Europe’s elite figures, even if that honour was memorialized in a portrait that focused more upon clothing, hairstyle, and jewellery than individual accomplishments.
Académie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Biographie Nationale de Belgique, Tome IV (Brussels, 1873).
Encyclopӕdia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com.
Christopher Brown and Nigel Ramsay, ‘Van Dyck’s Collection: Some New Documents’, The Burlington Magazine, 132 (1051) (October, 1990), pp. 704-709.
François A. Aubert de la Chenaye-Desbois, Dictionnaire de La Noblesse, Tome VIII (Paris, 1774).
Elise Goodman, ‘Woman’s Supremacy over Nature: Van Dyck’s “Portrait of Elena Grimaldi”’, Artibus et Historiae, 15 (30) (1994), pp. 129-143.
Anna Garcia Sanz, ‘The Tapestries of the Triumph of the Eucharist: Function and Placement in the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales’, in Alejandro Vergara and Anne T. Woollett (eds.), Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist Series (Los Angeles, 2014), pp. 31-47.
Emilie E. S. Gordenker, ‘The Rhetoric of Dress in Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Portraiture’, The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, 57 (1999), pp. 87-104.
Hilbert Lootsma, ‘Tracing a Pose: Govert Flinck and the Emergence of the van Dyckian Mode of Portraiture in Amsterdam’, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, 33 (4) (2007/2008), pp. 221-236.
Arthur Mayger Hind, Van Dyck: His Original Etchings and His Iconography (Boston and New York, 1915).
Aileen Ribeiro, ‘Some Evidence of the Influence of the Dress of the Seventeenth Century on Costume in Eighteenth-Century Female Portraiture’, The Burlington Magazine, 119 (897) (December, 1977), pp. 832 + 834-840.
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Isabella-Clara-Eugenia; https://www.britannica.com/biography/Albert-VII; Anna Garcia Sanz, ‘The Tapestries of the Triumph of the Eucharist: Function and Placement in the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales’, in Alejandro Vergara and Anne T. Woollett (eds.), Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist Series (Los Angeles, 2014), pp. 31-47.
 François A. Aubert de la Chenaye-Desbois, Dictionnaire de La Noblesse, Tome VIII (Paris, 1774), p. 743; Académie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Biographie Nationale de Belgique, Tome IV (Brussels, 1873), pp. 553-555.
 Christopher Brown and Nigel Ramsay, ‘Van Dyck’s Collection: Some New Documents’, The Burlington Magazine, 132 (1051) (October, 1990), p. 704.
 Arthur Mayger Hind, Van Dyck: His Original Etchings and His Iconography (Boston and New York, 1915), p. 47.
 Ibid., p. 41.
 Ibid., p. 63.
 Hilbert Lootsma, ‘Tracing a Pose: Govert Flinck and the Emergence of the van Dyckian Mode of Portraiture in Amsterdam’, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, 33 (4) (2007/2008), p. 221.
 Ibid., p. 222.
 Aileen Ribeiro, ‘Some Evidence of the Influence of the Dress of the Seventeenth Century on Costumes on Eighteenth-Century Female Portraiture’, The Burlington Magazine, 119 (897) (December, 1977), p. 832.
 Emilie E. S. Gordenker, ‘The Rhetoric of Dress in Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Portraiture’, The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, 57 (1999), p. 94.
 Elise Goodman, ‘Woman’s Supremacy over Nature: Van Dyck’s “Portrait of Elena Grimaldi”’, Artibus et Historiae, 15 (30) (1994), p. 134.
 Ibid., p. 135
Text: Ms. Helena Jedziniak, M. Phil. in Art History, ART+IRELAND, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Trinity College, Dublin.