“Turn your face to the sun and the shadows follow behind you.” - Maori Proverb
Anthony van Dyck (born March 22, 1599 Antwerp, Belgium, died December 9, 1641) was a Flemish painter and draughtsman who lived in England for quite a few years of his life. Anthony was the seventh of twelve children born to a wealthy silk merchant in Belgium. The child was very talented and began to paint at an early age. By the age of nineteen, he had already become an art teacher in Antwerp. Soon afterward, he collaborated and trained with the famous Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens.
In 1620, at the instigation of George Villiers, Marquess of Buckingham, van Dyck went to England for the first time where he worked for King James I of England, receiving £100. It was in London in the collection of the Earl of Arundel that he first saw the work of Titian, whose use of colour and subtle modelling of form would prove transformational, offering a new stylistic language that would enrich the compositional lessons learned from Rubens.
After moving back to Flanders, Van Dyck decided to go to Italy in 1620, where he studied the paintings of Titian and Paolo Veronese and worked for six years as a successful portrait painter for the Italian nobility. He became so well known that in 1632 King Charles I of England summoned him to London to be his exclusive court painter and eventually gave him a knighthood. Van Dyck’s numerous portraits of Charles I and his family were greatly admired by his contemporaries.
Realising that Charles’s political and financial fortunes were in decline, van Dyck left England in for Antwerp and Paris. A year later, after several unsuccessful projects abroad, he returned to London in 1641 in ill health and died shortly thereafter. Van Dyck is buried in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a distinction reserved only for illustrious British subjects.
Most major museum collections include at least one van Dyck, but easily the most outstanding collection is the Royal Collection, which still contains many of his paintings of the Royal Family. The National Gallery, London (fourteen works), The Museo del Prado in Madrid, (twenty-five works), The Louvre in Paris (eighteen works), The Alte Pinakothek in Munich, National Museum of Serbia in Belgrade, The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the Frick Collection have splendid examples of all phases of his portrait style.
Van Dyck’s portraits of men, notably Charles I and himself, are painted with the short, pointed beards then in fashion; the result is that this particular kind of beard was much later (probably first in America in the 19th century) named a vandyke or Van Dyke beard (which is the anglicised version of his name).
In the self-portrait above (painted after 1633), Van Dyck paint himself wearing a rich red silken overshirt with a heavy gold chain draped and displayed prominently over his right shoulder. This is a prominent display of the painter’s status as a successful and lauded artist. He holds a sunflower (then recently introduced to Europe from the Americas), which is a symbol of adoration, as they turn their heads to the sun, which is the origin of their common name. Perhaps Van Dyck is making a rather unsubtle and none too modest statement about his noble status and great talent. An alternate meaning of the sunflower is “pure and lofty thoughts” so if we wish to be kinder to the artist, perhaps we should ascribe this menaing to it…