Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture, currently at the Frick Collection, provides a window onto how the premier Baroque portrait style came together in the busy studio of a gifted, if short-lived, painter. For those following current trends in portrait painting, this is a chance to study the laying of the foundation of the genre as we understand it today.
The anatomical structure of a van Dyck portrait, to which the exhibition title refers, is a blend of elements, some of which came from the century prior to the Baroque; van Dyck absorbed and revitalized them into a style that succeeded with power elites for generations. Beginning with the relaxed pose of the late Renaissance — Titian’s “Man with a Glove” in the Frick’s permanent galleries is a perfect example — van Dyck injected the uncompromising realism of such contemporaries as Rembrandt and Velazquez, while also exploiting the heightened fashion trends of the 17th century.
The work in the exhibition suggests that the portrait style van Dyck assembled from these disparate sources was a pictorial collaboration between sitter and artist — the recording of an event, not just an agreed-upon image. Van Dyck focused on the subject’s attitude toward being in the picture, a joint venture of artist and sitter that continues to this day as a model, or a foil, for artists like Kehinde Wiley, Elizabeth Peyton, and Cindy Sherman. We might include earlier practitioners as well, like Lucien Freud and Alice Neel, or, to cast a wider net, photographers Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, and Richard Avedon.
This awareness of a subject’s posing is prominent in many of the exhibition’s large canvases, but especially in a painting of the artist’s wife, “Mary, Lady Van Dyck, née Ruthven” (c. 1640), lent to the exhibition by the Prado. It’s a lively rendering completed at the peak of the artist’s abilities and, poignantly, a year before his untimely death. Here is an example of a painter transcending what often appears ornate and stagy in the Baroque. Set against a dark background, Mary’s slightly upturned head echoes her raised eyebrows, which in turn accentuate an unambiguously confident self-regard aimed at the viewer. Everything in the picture — her pale bodice set against the blue of the dress, the fingers of her right hand gently holding, yet clearly flaunting, the rosary on her left wrist — is anchored by the clarity in those eyes and the openness of her expression. Her presence creates the illusion that she appeared on the canvas by the power of her own countenance.
The pivotal role van Dyck played in developing portraiture was only possible because he had, among other talents, the rare ability to render a thinking, prescient individual on canvas — the first and crucial step in winning the confidence of a sitter. With the obvious exception of those marvelous 1st-century BCE Fayum panels — created calmly, one imagines, for the complacently deceased — the fate of most portrait artists is dictated by how well they can weather the demands and expectations of their subjects. But van Dyck didn’t just have skill as a portrait artist, skill that was recognized and encouraged by Rubens; he was also socially and economically predisposed to success. Born in 1599 to a wealthy Antwerp family, Anthony van Dyck’s talent was fortified from the outset by a familiarity with aristocratic manners and lots of money. He made it to full painters’ guild membership at the age of 18 — around the same time that he entered Rubens’s studio as a supervising assistant. “Self-Portrait” (c. 1613–15), a very early effort, attests to the abilities that such recognition implied. The canvas, no bigger than the cover of a book, shows the artist’s face in a bright light that glows out of the typical Baroque gloom of deep umber. The dark background has been deployed, not to heighten sculptural contrast, but to concentrate dramatic effect on the subtle color range possible in the full frontal light on the artist’s face. In effect, he’s reaching back to Caravaggio at the same time that he’s unwittingly leaning forward to Manet.
Like many of the exhibitions the Frick has offered in the past few years, The Anatomy of Portraiture begins with an unnerving descent into the basement, where one is reminded of both Henry Frick’s coal pits and the domestic histrionics that have left the institution with barely adequate facilities for handling ambitious shows. In this instance, the viewer is rewarded with rooms of extraordinary drawings, etchings, and small grisaille studies, grouped together with a few full-color studies in oil. The latter, portraits thought to be prep work for a large Brussels Town Hall painting that has not survived, include “Portrait Study of a Man, Facing Right” (c. 1634), which alone is worth the visit. Though it can’t be seen in its final context, the oil sketch contains such strength as a portrait that it’s equal to a late Velazquez. Its uncharacteristic sketchiness also makes for an unintentional complement to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Unfinished exhibition at the nearby Breuer building.
“Portrait Study of a Man, Facing Right” is a record of van Dyck’s initial encounter with a sitter. What’s surprising about many of the surrounding drawings, which dominate the downstairs galleries, is that they were made for compositional planning only: instead of expressive sketches prized for revealing an artist’s first meeting with a sitter, they are fully drawn compositional studies. So, in “Cesare Alessandro Scaglia, Seated” (c. 1634), Scaglia’s face is no more detailed than any other part of the drawing. According to the catalogue, van Dyck preferred to capture a sitter’s face directly on the canvas that was to be the final work. A drawing like that of Scaglia was then made to aid studio assistants as they completed the canvas, often working from the actual costume, armor, or whatever the sitter had been wearing.
Following the example set by Rubens, van Dyck ran a complex studio staffed with many talented assistants, who functioned for him as he once did for Rubens. This factory-style studio organization, to use Warhol’s sardonic term, would seem to suggest an atmosphere less than conducive to the sensitivity we find in many of van Dyck’s portraits that was so crucial to his success. That he managed to get the presence of a living soul in so many of his paintings seems extraordinary.
The tension that may have simmered between what was expected of him as a portrait artist for the wealthy and powerful and what inspired him personally is hinted at in the exhibition by a sympathetic portrait he made of Adrian Brouwer. It’s among the grisailles studies he prepared for a publication initiated in 1632 by Gillis Hendricks called the Iconographie, a pictorial who’s who of artists and other notable individuals. Brouwer’s eccentric paintings of brawling, puking tavern regulars were discreetly prized by van Dyck, Rembrandt, Hals, and many discerning collectors at the time; Rubens himself owned more than a dozen. Van Dyck’s portrait is conventional in the sense that it poses Brouwer with noble countenance, shoulders back, hands gloved. Yet his face reveals a discomfort, or at least a reluctance to appear too confident. There seems a reticence, perhaps even vulnerability in his expression that’s unusual for the Iconographie series (which is represented in the exhibition by several examples).
What van Dyck gave the period was a way to organize possible elements into a pictorial language that allowed the sitter to appear as more than a passive participant. And it is this aspect that any portrait artist today must address. Even a rejection of the basic tenets van Dyck left behind constitutes recognition of his historical significance.
Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture continues at the Frick Collection (1 East 70th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 5.