As Emilie Gordenker says, the history of dress has often in the past been regarded as a suitable occupation for amateurs or, perish the thought, as ‘women’s work.’ But now at last it has moved into the mainstream of art historical scholarship and is influencing the way we look at and understand paintings. What, for example, Marieke de Winkel has done and is doing for our understanding of Rembrandt, Emilie Gordenker has now done for Anthony van Dyck. Others have, of course, made valuable contributions to the subject of Van Dyck’s representation of costume, as is fully acknowledged here. (The extensive footnotes represent a formidable diligence in citing and summarizing the relevant literature; the author can claim to have left no button undone.) But this book represents the first full-scale examination of the subject. Costume historians will make their own judgement – I would be surprised if it were adverse–– but for those primarily interested in the artist, it represents a rewarding and enlightening piece of research. By the time I had finished the book I felt that I had understood a lot of nuances regarding the interpretation of Van Dyck’s portraits, which had previously passed me by. The book publishes Gordenker’s doctoral dissertation, and if the writing occasionally smacks of the thesis, it is a small price to pay. The book is well illustrated, with some good color plates.
Although the title refers to the study of dress in seventeenth-century portraiture, the book is very largely concerned with Van Dyck’s English portraits, in which he made his original contribution to the representation of costume. How far this was an English phenomenon is nicely underlined by the fact that when he returned briefly to Antwerp in 1634/5 he did not portray any of his Flemish sitters in the loose flowing draperies he had clothed his English sitters. As always, Van Dyck had a fine sense of the taste which would appeal to the local patronage.
What Gordenker brings out, by a careful examination of contemporary costume, is how subtle Van Dyck was in his approach to dress, with the result that writers have not appreciated how much is due to the artist’s invention rather than to the contents of the sitter’s wardrobe. It was a form of dress achieving a degree of timelessness, which met with the approval of his sitters, who thereby could never, horror of horrors, be exposed as being out of fashion. Her study of costume at the Caroline court is given an intellectual depth by relating it to contemporary literature and neo-Platonism with its views of beauty.
Although one tends to have the opposite impression, a chapter on ‘fancy dress’ establishes how infrequently it occurs in Van Dyck’s work. The author makes clear that it was not a manner of presentation chosen by the artist, but arose from a commission in which the sitter wished to include personal reference to his or her life. But, and this is a nice point brought out by Gordenker, the head with its hairstyle and attendant jewellery, however exotic the costume may have been, was an actual record.
The central theme of the book is epitomized by William Sanderson’s well-known claim that Van Dyck was ‘The first Painter that e’re put Ladies dress into a careless Romance.’ What this meant and how this affected the apearance of many of his English portraits is illustrated by taking three very different portraits of the same sitter, Mary Villiers. Gordenker describes how Van Dyck invented his style of undress by a variety of means; by omitting gown, lace collars and cuffs, designing a shift and adding floating scarves and the occasional piece of spectacular jewellery. And, although it is difficult for us to appreciate the nuance in these days of bodily exposure, Van Dyck created a sensuous frisson for the contemporary spectator by rolling up the sleeves of his sitter, thus revealing a glimpse of a delectably plump arm. A comparison between preparatory drawings and the finished canvas shows how, although maintaining the adumbrated pose established in the former, he evolved his own costume details on the canvas.
Turning to male portraiture Gordenker gives a revealing reading of the self-portraits, bringing out their informality of dress as a means of projecting the artist’s image of himself. In the Self-Portrait with Endymion Porter, the artist’s simple black costume, sometimes interpreted as indicating the painter’s acknowledgement of his inferiority to his friend in his gorgeously silver-coloured finery, in fact can be read as referring to his intellectual interests. In contrast to how Van Dyck dressed himself in his self-portraits of about 1620 (Munich, New York and St Petersburg), Rubens in his two portraits of him – incidentally, the Windsor Castle picture is surely to be dated immediately after Van Dyck’s Italian visit, rather than, as stated here, just before–– kept him in formal costume. In the case of the double portrait of Thomas Killigrew and an Unidentified Man, sometimes interpreted as a study in mourning, Gordenker convincingly reads Killigrew’s costume as an example of poetic carelessness.
The final chapter is devoted to Van Dyck’s posthumous influence. Although much influenced by the formal aspects of his portraiture, his native city at first ignored his transformation of dress, which, in the Netherlands, was left to The Hague, which had welcomed Henrietta Maria, to take over in the local style. In later seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, ‘Vandyke dress’ became, as has long been recognized, an essential factor in portrait painting, towards which painters had to react one way or another. If one wishes to pick out the culmination of the concept, Gordenker is surely right to mention Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. Even Van Dyck would have been impressed by such a glorious example of ‘careless romance.’