We give Souren Melikian a hard time for his garbled sense of economics and market mechanics but scholar’s erudition is a thing admire. In today’s New York Times, he writes a compelling pocket history of Anthonie van Dyck’s success in England. The story is a must-read:
Circumstantial evidence suggests that Rubens, an operator if ever there was one, played a part in the recruitment of Anthonie van Dyck, who had been a star pupil of his, and later his assistant, in his Antwerp studio, but precisely how the court contacted Van Dyck remains unknown.
Van Dyck had first come to London in October 1620, officially at the invitation of a half-brother of the king’s favorite George Villiers, later first duke of Buckingham. During his brief stay, the artist painted “The Continence of Scipio,” in which the Roman conqueror of what is now Spain is depicted magnanimously treating the defeated Celtiberian chief Allucius. This subject had been dealt with by Rubens in a picture now lost, and Van Dyck’s own version betrays a Rubensian strain. The painting, with multiple allusions to Buckingham’s own life, was much admired in court circles. [ . . . ]
What was Van Dyck’s appeal to the King?
Perhaps Charles I was still under the spell of the striking royal family portraits executed by Van Dyck in 1632. In the portrait of Henrietta Maria, the queen is depicted with intelligence shining in her eyes and a gracefulness that glossed over reality. After meeting her in 1642, her nephew’s wife Sophia, daughter of Elizabeth of Bohemia, expressed unkind surprise — the queen, “so beautiful” in the picture, was “a little woman with long lean arms, crooked shoulders, and teeth protruding from her mouth like guns in a fort.”
The close attachment between Charles and the painter could not last forever but Van Dyck’s death saved him from the unpleasantness to come:
Overwork finally killed Van Dyck. He died in 1641, one year before Charles I was forced out of London by the Parliamentarians in a civil war that would culminate in the king’s execution in 1649.
Van Dyck’s Climb to the Top (New York Times)