More than thirty years after the pioneering exhibition in Ottawa curated by Ian MacNairn (1980), the Museo del Prado organised a comprehensive exploration of Anthony van Dyck’s early years. The exhibition focused exclusively on work from his so-called first Antwerp period, that is to say, the time when Van Dyck was taking his first steps as a painter until his departure for Italy in 1621. The organisers of the exhibition, Alejandro Vergara of the Prado and Friso Lammerste of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam – capably assisted by Anne-Marie Logan for the drawings – deserve the highest praise. Van Dyck’s works were intelligently arranged in a series of airy, differently shaped rooms with some natural light. The colour of the walls, an unconventional sage green, was well-chosen, the artificial illumination unobtrusive and almost state-of-the-art. This superb exhibition was accompanied by a lengthy and fully illustrated catalogue available in both Spanish and English. The book comprises two main essays, one by Vergara/Lammertse and the other by Logan, followed by ninety succinct entries, a considerable number of which were written by the curators of the exhibition. The final section – which deals with scientific analyses of ten paintings, including six from the Prado – is an invaluable part of the catalogue.
In October 1609 the ten-year-old Van Dyck became a pupil of Hendrick van Balen (1573-1632). The first surviving painting by his hand – a portrait of 1613, now in Brussels (not exhibited) – was possibly painted in his teacher’s studio. It bears an inscription with the artist’s monogram and the quite exceptional record of his age: fourteen years old. How long Van Dyck stayed with Van Balen is unclear, for only in 1618 does his name crop up again in archival documents, when he registered as a master in Antwerp’s Guild of St Luke. It has often been suggested that he started working under Rubens’s supervision at an early age, although nothing about this is known for certain. Actual collaboration between the two is documented only between 1617 and 1620. Did the young Van Dyck also study with Rubens, or did his remarkable talent lead to his immediate employment as the master’s assistant?
Although Van Dyck’s early works are not at all stylistically coherent, they betray a close connection with Rubens’s manner of working, and at the same time reveal an artist striving for a style of his own. The artistic rivalry between the young, ambitious painter and his famous example and mentor (whose own beginnings as a painter had been hesitant and awkward) is one of the most exciting episodes in art history and runs like a thread through this show. The exhibition demonstrates how Van Dyck tried to free himself from Rubens as he feverishly sought a personal style that would finally distinguish him from his rival. At this time Rubens sometimes painted with enamel-like smoothness, whereas Van Dyck’s work displayed a coarseness that reflected nothing less than his endeavour to forge a revolutionary new style.
The lack of both documentation and dated works makes the placement of Van Dyck’s earliest work a matter of conjecture. The first dated paintings after the 1613 portrait are four portraits of 1618. Not one of the large history paintings of this period bears a date, so it is understandable that the curators allowed themselves some chronological liberties.
As in the large retrospective exhibitions in Antwerp and London in 1999, the show opened with the extraordinary self-portrait – no larger than 25 x 20 cm – painted in around 1615 at the age of fifteen or sixteen, in which Van Dyck’s head is turned, giving the impression of sudden movement. The eyes are those of a boy, mature beyond his years and already capable of intense observation. Whereas the first history paintings in the exhibition show a painter still struggling with composition and the human form, the young Van Dyck was soon to emerge as a painter who could rival Rubens. Christ Crowned with Thorns (no. 55), with its vivid colors and rapid, occasionally slashing brushstrokes, reveals a passionate identification with the subject, while the superb Betrayal of Christ (no. 84) is a stupendous nocturnal vision of a torch-bearing horde closing in on its victim. These two works, both from the Prado, rank among the greatest history paintings produced in the seventeenth century. Van Dyck approached large subjects by exploring possible compositional ideas with his pen – trying out figural arrangements, delineating forms, experimenting with light – until he hit upon a satisfactory solution. These preparatory drawings, often cleverly and elegantly arrayed in display units that made it possible to view them in alignment with the finished paintings, bear fascinating witness to the various stages in which his final paintings took shape as he pondered and explored the subject on paper. The sensation of accompanying the artist in this exploratory process is enough to make the exhibition a revelation. Together with at least seven other paintings from Van Dyck’s first Antwerp period, The Crowning with Thorns – the composition of which is based on a Rubens painting – and The Betrayal of Christ were once owned by Rubens, who probably had them in his possession before Van Dyck left for Italy in 1621. Unfortunately, the extent to which Rubens played a supervisory role in their genesis remains an open question.
The complex gestation of Christ Carrying the Cross (no. 21) – the artist’s first public commission, painted for the church of the Dominicans in Antwerp and again a work in which Rubens’s influence is strongly felt – is also unravelled by Logan in exemplary fashion. This painting of c. 1618 was the first for which there exists a substantial group of preparatory drawings, so it is particularly regrettable that the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp could not be persuaded to lend the Prado the final modello for Christ Carrying the Cross, which is squared in black chalk for transfer. In this drawing Van Dyck finalized the composition, restoring the figure of Simon of Cyrene to his place beside the Virgin and introducing changes in the background. Here, too, we find ample proof of how the artist continued to experiment, in order to arrive – at last – at ingenious and entirely natural solutions.
The final section of the show contained a wonderful assembly of portraits, including the charming, animated Portrait of a Family from St. Petersburg (no. 86), which owes so much to Rubens, two spectacular double portraits from London and Washington (nos. 88 and 89) and the incisive Portrait of Cornelis van der Geest (no. 87), perhaps one of the finest portraits ever produced. It is a great pity that this unsurpassed masterpiece, like a handful of other works in the exhibition, is not reproduced to best advantage in the catalogue.
Otherwise there was very little to object to in this fine show. The works were judiciously selected and there were neither jarring encounters nor glaring omissions. Only a handful of paintings – including The Crucifixion of St Peter (no. 11) and the rather boring Portrait of an Elderly Man (no.12), both from Brussels and both blurred by excessive surface dirt and discoloured varnish – added little to the show and might better have been omitted. While it would be unfair to reproach the curators for the absence of the large panel of St. Martin Dividing his Cloak from Zaventem, a painting that comes terrifyingly close to Rubens’s style, it is a pity that the exhibition did not include any pictures made during Van Dyck’s short spell in England, from October 1620 to late February or early March 1621, especially since the artist’s style seems to have undergone important changes in London.
Despite these minor reservations, The Young Van Dyck offered both intellectual revelation and visual delight, sharpening our perception of Van Dyck’s working method and illuminating the complex interplay between two great masters.
Ben van Beneden