Van Dyck’s Iconography is, in essence, a collection of portraits by an extremely prolific portrait artist. To understand the Iconography one must first understand the nature of the portrait as a genre, both in oil painting (which is Van Dyck’s preferred medium), and when transferred to print. Portraits were a very specific type of painting usually of an individual or of a group of individuals, and, unlike a landscape or a historical painting, the motives behind their commissioning were usually much more personal. The portrait print, however, had a much broader audience. Portraits had a specific language of signs and symbols which could be utilised, alongside a realistic and perhaps flattering rendering of the individual, to create an image that served as a record of that person’s identity and status. Van Dyck was renowned as a portrait artist for his ability to utilise these conventions to their full, but also for the unique elements he brought to the typology of the genre.
Image 1: Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Fig. 35 in book.
In seventeenth-century Flemish portraiture there was a tendency towards expressing personality and individuality in portraits and Van Dyck continued this tradition. Building on what he had learned from working as Rubens’ assistant he created his own way of capturing the essence of the sitter. At this time in the Netherlands (both Spanish and Dutch) portraiture was very much in fashion and there was an unprecedented demand for portraits corresponding to an economic boom. This accounts for the type of people depicted in portraits of the time – well-off individuals who could afford to commission portraits. These people ranged from aristocrats to merchants to artists themselves. Portraiture was the mark of an individual who enjoyed social status and even merited immortality. Previously this was the sole domain of members of the nobility, but with the rise of the middle class there was an increase in non-royals who wanted to commission portraits, and given their wealth, could do so. Given that portraits were some of the most expensive paintings that could be bought at the time, this is an indication of the wealth of the bourgeoisie and their values, in terms of how they wished to spend their money and what they felt merited investing in.
Conventionally, portraits built identity through the employment of signs and symbols including everything from setting to pose to props. This would allow the viewer to easily identify the status and occupation of the person depicted – a tradition carried over from royal portraits. Portraits could be individual, group, marriage or self-portraits – all were extremely popular and all were designed to convey a specific message about the sitter and their place in society, perhaps a marriage to a well-connected or well-bred individual or a group of intellectuals who wished to be commemorated as such. However, this is not to say that it was merely the merchant class who commissioned portraits, since they were still very much in demand in courts and this is reflected in the kind of commissions that made up the majority of Van Dyck’s work.
Van Dyck was a Flemish artist working at a time when there were marked differences between Flemish and Dutch art that corresponded with the formation of a separate Dutch republic. Whilst his portraits are sometimes confused in the popular mind with Dutch portraits of a similar time period, it is important to remember that his artistic influences would have differed from a lot of these artists. Due to the fact that it was under Spanish control, Flanders felt the influence of Roman Catholic art more than the Dutch Netherlands. As well as this, Van Dyck’s training under Rubens, who was heavily influenced by Italian art – as well as his own time in Italy – would have had a huge impact on his art. This depth and range of influence allowed his art to stand apart from other portrait painters of the North, in particular in terms of his mastery of colour and his painterly technique, obtained whilst studying the works of Italian artists like Titian who were renowned for these abilities. It was potentially this unique blend of influences that secured him his many court commissions in Italy and England and earned him his reputation as a court painter, painting portraits of royals across Europe.
Image 2: Anthony van Dyck, Charles I (1600-1649). Oil on canvas, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II: https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/404420/charles-i-1600-1649
He was brought to England by Charles I to be his court painter, a great honour and a testament to his skill and reputation. He was perhaps singled out due to his style, which, as mentioned above, was not particular to one location, but drew influence from several sources. He painted various members of the English royal family, but in particular, he painted Charles I himself on many occasions and in many different ways. He included the symbols of royalty that were standard in court paintings but made these accompany very realistic paintings of the monarch that appear to capture his character. His connection with Charles I is evident in his paintings, particularly in Charles I (1600-1649) in the Royal Collection, Windsor Castle (Image 2), a painting which breaks with the traditions of court painting because it was intended as a study for a sculpture. This ability to convey a special connection with his sitters also transfers to his portrait prints. Another element that can be seen in his court paintings that carries over to the prints in the Iconography is his ability to convey a specific image or personal “brand”. This was an invaluable skill to have as a portrait painter as it meant that the artist could convey how the sitter wanted to be immortalised. Van Dyck also painted a lot of artists and intellectuals as these were the type of people that interested him. This focus is evident also in the Iconography, where artists and similar types occupy the largest portion of the book.
Image 3: Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637). Fig. 27 in book.
The Iconography takes the tradition of portrait painting to a new level, changing both medium and audience. The reproductive nature of a print meant that their dissemination was far greater than any painting could ever achieve. A painting, on the other hand, was a single entity that could be hung in one location and viewed merely by people who happened to view that location. A print could be repeatedly printed to create multiple copies and it could be replicated in books. This allowed access to any number of viewers. It ensured not just the renown of the artist, but also of the person depicted since it had the potential to make them a known ‘face’, a much harder feat in the seventeenth century than today. While individual printed portraits, books of prints, and books containing prints were in circulation at the time, the concept that Van Dyck created – that is to say a book containing purely portraits, done either by the artist or from sketches by the artist, was unique. It was, in essence a pure appreciation of the genre of portraiture. The individuals contained within its pages varied in terms of status and occupation but one thing that stands out is the sheer number of portraits of artists, unusual for the period. Artists were not the most commonly depicted subjects of portraits so to have the large majority of a book of portraits dedicated to them illustrates a specific agenda, which was the elevation of the status of the artist. By dedicating so many of the prints to his contemporaries, Van Dyck was making an overt statement about the importance of the artist – a statement that would have been difficult to make any other way. A book of portraits implies that the book is a collection of important individuals (given that portraiture signified importance), and it follows, then, that a book of portraits with a predominant artist focus endows said professions with importance.
Image 4: Martin Rychaert (1587-1631). Fig. 58 in book.
When it comes to the genre of portraiture there are benefits and disadvantages to both oil and printed forms. A traditional painting is an immediately elevated art form – it takes time to create and is usually a one-off. It allows for a depth of colour and tone and realism that is virtually impossible to recreate in a print. In Van Dyck’s case the traditional oil painting allowed him to implement his study of the Italian masters and their command of colore. It showcased his mastery of paint and the beautiful costumes and props in which he dressed his sitters in, especially his royal sitters, whose wealth was manifested in the sumptuous fabrics they wore in each portrait. It also allowed him to bring a lifelikeness to his portraits that is not always as evident in the monochrome prints. However, as discussed above, the prints had their own function. They implied another ‘layer’ of importance so to speak; one was important enough to merit their image needing recognition. They took the genre of the portrait and all of its implied associations with identity, status and commemoration and added to this. In essence the portrait print was the ultimate portrait in that, what it lacked in ability to imitate reality via colour, it made up for in ability to ‘promote’ the person depicted. There can be no doubt that an oil painting captures the sitter better, however does it fulfil the requirements of a portrait quite as well as the portrait print does? The last is, after all, a much more successful way of making sure one is remembered as one wishes to be by as many people as possible. Another benefit of the printed portrait is that it is usually accompanied by a caption which allows for identification of the sitter, most by usually name (and title if appropriate) and the occupation. While the prints usually contained visual cues as to the occupation of the sitter (i.e. a paintbrush to signify that they were an artist), the addition of a textual explanation ensures that there is no doubt as to who the person in the print was, a key component if one’s motivation is commemoration, which was the case with many people who commissioned portraits of themselves. While there are benefits and drawbacks to both, the portrait print and the traditional portrait are two very different media and worked in two different ways, albeit both with similar goals.
Image 5: Anthony van Dyck, Self Portrait. Oil on canvas, Private Collection:
Image 6: Engraved title page of Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641).
This is illustrated perfectly in two versions of a self-portrait by the artist himself (Images 5 and 6). The first is a traditional oil painting in a private collection and the second is a print of this painting which was used as the title page of the Iconography. The oil painting’s authenticity was debated up until a few years ago when cleaning convinced many that it is in fact, a genuine Van Dyck and not a copy, as previously thought. This oil painting predates the print created for the Iconography and exists in several states in relation to its printed form – as an unfinished etching by Van Dyck, as a completed engraving by Lucas Vorsterman based on the painting (Image 1), and as a title page engraving depicting only the bust by Jacques Neeffs (Image 6). The oil painting and print are identical, and it is noteworthy that despite having a range of self-portraits, Van Dyck chose this one to be the one that would front the Iconography, even if it is debatable whether he wished to have it in the form it ended up in (that is to say, a bust on a plinth, minus hands and chain). In this self-portrait, as with others, he does not explicitly state that he is an artist; he does not carry a brush or any of the other ‘tools of the trade’, tools with which he equipped only one of his fellow artists with in the Iconography. He is looking over his shoulder, a common motif employed by artists to suggest intellect. Recent research suggests that the gold chain he is wearing is the one given to him by Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, Infanta of Spain (1566-1633) in 1628 when Van Dyck was working in Antwerp. Charles I also presented a gold chain to him in 1633, a chain that features prominently in his Self Portrait with a Sunflower in the private collection of the Duke of Westminister at Eaton Hall, Cheshire and is representative of the King’s patronage and of his knighthood whilst in England. All of these elements suggest that Van Dyck did not wish to convey an image of himself as an artist; rather he wished to portray himself as a courtier. From his dress to his pose to his lack of artistic symbols, he does not identify himself in the way one would expect. Rather he appears to allude to his time spent in the courts of Italy and England and to see these as far more defining and indicative of his identity. Even when painting himself, Van Dyck was aware of the power of the portrait to communicate a message and commemorate a person, and how careful one had to be when ‘curating’ the identity by which they would be remembered.
In conclusion, the portrait is a nuanced genre of painting that is tied intricately to the sitter’s sense of self and how this is communicated via the painter. The ability of Van Dyck to capture the personality of the person was unparalleled and this ability transferred to his printed portraits.
Art UK, ‘Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) | Art UK’. Available at: https://artuk.org/discover/artists/van-dyck-anthony-15991641.
Martin Bailey, ‘Van Dyck self-portrait reconfirmed as genuine: Artist’s gold chain provides clue that work in Minneapolis is an original’, The Art Newspaper (1 March 2015). Available at: http://old.theartnewspaper.com/news/news/van-dyck-self-portrait-reconfirmed-as-genuine-/.
Xanthe Brooke, Face to Face: Three Centuries of Artists’ Self Portraiture (Liverpool, 1994).
Victoria Charles, Anthony Van Dyck (London, 2011).
Rudi Ekkart and Quentin Buvelot, Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals (Zwolle, 2007).
The Fitzwilliam Museum, ‘Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)’, Anthony Van Dyck [online exhibition] (2009). Available at: http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/vandyck/biographies/anthonyvandyck.1.html.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, ‘Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599 – 1641)’. Available at: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/449/anthony-van-dyck-flemish-1599-1641/.
Gustav Glück, ‘Van Dyck’s Equestrian Portraits of Charles I’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 70 (410) (May, 1937), pp. 211-213, 216-217.
Gustav Glück, ‘Self-Portraits by Van Dyck and Jordaens’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 65 (380) (November, 1934), pp. 194-197, 200-201.
Emilie E. S. Gordenker, ‘The Rhetoric of Dress in Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Portraiture’, The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, 57, Place and Culture in Northern Art (1999), pp. 87-104.
Karen Hearn (ed.), Van Dyck and Britain (London, 2009).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ‘Anthony van Dyck | Self-Portrait | The Met’. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436258.
Klaske Muizelaar and Derek L. Phillips, Picturing Men and Women in the Dutch Golden Age: Paintings and People in Historical Perspective (New Haven and London, 2003).
Emil Heinrich Richter, ‘The Etched Portrait of Himself by Van Dyck’, Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin, 14 (85) (October, 1916), pp. 38-39.
Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (Berkeley, 1988).
Visual Arts Encyclopedia, ‘Flemish Painting: History, Characteristics – Flemish Painting in the 17th Century’. Available at: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/flemish-painting.htm#seventeenthcentury.
Ann Sutherland Harris, Seventeenth Century Art and Architecture (London, 2005).
Robert R. Wark, ‘A Note on Van Dyck’s ‘Self Portrait with a Sunflower’’, The Burlington Magazine, 98 (635) (February, 1956), pp. 52-54.
Web Gallery of Art, ‘Dyck, Sir Anthony van (b. 1599, Antwerpen, d. 1641, London)’. Available at: http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/bio/d/dyck_van/biograph.html.
Joanna Woodall, Portraiture: Facing the Subject (Manchester, 1997).
 Rudi Ekkart and Quentin Buvelot, Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals (Zwolle, 2007), p. 7.
 Joanna Woodall, Portraiture: Facing the Subject (Manchester, 1997), p. 75.
 Ibid., p. 78.
 Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (Berkeley, 1988), p. 319.
 Web Gallery of Art, ‘Dyck, Sir Anthony van (b. 1599, Antwerpen, d. 1641, London)’. Available at: http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/bio/d/dyck_van/biograph.html.
 The J. Paul Getty Museum, ‘Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599 – 1641)’. Available at: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/449/anthony-van-dyck-flemish-1599-1641/.
 Ann Sutherland Harris, Seventeenth Century Art and Architecture (London, 2005), p. 389.
 Karen Hearn (ed.), Van Dyck and Britain (London, 2009), p. 15.
 Victoria Charles, Anthony Van Dyck (London, 2011), p. 30.
 Martin Bailey, ‘Van Dyck self-portrait reconfirmed as genuine: Artist’s gold chain provides clue that work in Minneapolis is an original’, The Art Newspaper (1 March 2015). Available at: http://old.theartnewspaper.com/news/news/van-dyck-self-portrait-reconfirmed-as-genuine-/.
 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ‘Anthony van Dyck | Self-Portrait | The Met’. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436258.
 The Fitzwilliam Museum, ‘Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)’, Anthony Van Dyck [online exhibition] (2009). Available at: http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/vandyck/biographies/anthonyvandyck.1.html.
 Robert R. Wark, ‘A Note on Van Dyck’s ‘Self Portrait with a Sunflower’’, The Burlington Magazine, 98 (635) (February, 1956), p. 53.
 Gustav Glück, ‘Self-Portraits by Van Dyck and Jordaens’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 65 (380) (November, 1934), p. 195.
 Xanthe Brooke, Face to Face: Three Centuries of Artists’ Self Portraiture (Liverpool, 1994), p. 19.
Text: Ms. Laura Harvey-Graham, M. Phil. in Art History, ART+IRELAND, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Trinity College, Dublin.