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Royal portraits from Chequers join new display of Anthony Van Dyck's self-portrait
Discover Van Dyck's impact on British art in the National Portrait Gallery's new display.

LONDON.- Two rarely-seen royal paintings by Van Dyck from the Prime Minister’s country house Chequers are being displayed alongside the artist’s last self-portrait in a new display of several of the artists works at the National Portrait Gallery in London, it was announced Friday 4 September 2015.

The portraits of King Charles I and Henrietta Maria are star loans in Van Dyck: Transforming British Art (4 September 2015 -3 January 2016) which has been curated to mark the temporary return of the artist’s recently acquired self-portrait part-way through its nationwide tour.

The two paintings are part of the collection of the Chequers Trust based in Buckinghamshire, 41 miles from the Prime Minister’s official residence No. 10 Downing Street, and not open to the public.

The loaned portrait of Charles I (oil on canvas c. 1636), a sensitive head of the king, is thought to have been kept by Van Dyck in his studio as a model for other, larger works though the painting of the costume was probably added later by studio assistants.

One of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic patrons and collectors of art of all British monarchs, Charles I had bought a painting by Van Dyck before the artist’s second visit to England in 1632, and he began commissioning portraits of himself and his family from the artist almost immediately on his arrival. These were to be some of the most striking and innovative royal portraits ever painted.

The Chequers portrait of Charles’s wife, Henrietta Maria (oil on canvas, c.1636), was the result of one of a number of sittings by the queen for the artist. Having seen the ‘beautiful’ Van Dyck portraits, Charles’s niece, Sophia of Hanover, recalled of her first sight of Henrietta Maria in 1641: ‘I was surprised to find that the Queen ... was a small woman ... with long skinny arms and teeth like defence works projecting from her mouth.’

The daughter of Henri IV of France, Henrietta Maria married Charles I when she was fifteen, and they had eight children together. Although the royal marriage was happy, the British people viewed her with suspicion, as she arrived unable to speak English, brought her own French entourage, and was permitted freely to practise her Roman Catholic faith.

Catharine MacLeod, Curator of Seventeenth-Century Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘Van Dyck’s portraits are characterised by graceful, fluid poses, often suggesting movement; areas of broad, confident, sweeping brushwork; and a kind of melancholic expressiveness in the faces. Costumes became sweeps of shimmering satin and settings were fanciful interiors and landscapes in which figures were placed confidently, with a sense of space and perspective. British portraiture was never to be the same again. Echoes of his paintings are clearly discernible in portraiture through the rest of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and still seen in the work of more traditional painters today.’

Van Dyck: Transforming British Art, which mainly comprises portraits from the Gallery’s own collection, focuses on the artist’s time in Britain, the reproduction and dissemination of his works, and his transforming effect on British portraiture. It includes Van Dyck portraits of Sir Edmund Verney, Sir Kenelm Digby, Venetia, Lady Digby, and Lord George Stuart, 9th Seigneur of Aubigny, and the young Charles II when Prince of Wales.

There are also portraits after Van Dyck of Queen Henrietta Maria, and The Five Eldest Children of Charles I. These are complemented by related works including Rubens’s portrait of Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, King Charles I by Daniel Mytens and The Capel Family by Cornelius Johnson. There is also a self-portrait by Robert Walker and, among a number of drawings, a line engraving of Oliver Cromwell by Pierre Lombart, after van Dyck.

It is the first of three displays to be held at the Gallery as part of the three-year tour of the newly acquired Van Dyck Self-portrait. In 2016, it will be joined by a selection of some of the great self-portraits from the early part of the Collection and in 2017 a third display at the Gallery will feature the portrait in the context of work by living artists.

Following its display at the National Portrait Gallery as part of Van Dyck: Transforming British Art, the portrait will be seen at Dulwich Picture Gallery and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in 2016; followed by the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, in 2017. The tour, Van Dyck: A Masterpiece for Everyone, which started at Turner Contemporary, Margate (24 January - 10 May 2015) before continuing to Manchester Art Gallery in May, is supported by the Art Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund.

Anthony van Dyck was born and trained in Antwerp, and went to work for the great painter Peter Paul Rubens while still in his teens. Quickly recognised as Rubens’s most talented assistant, he soon set out to gain wider experience. Van Dyck briefly visited England in 1620–1, and then spent six years travelling and painting in Italy. Work in Antwerp and the Northern Netherlands followed this, and then in 1632, he returned to England.

Here, he was created Principal Painter to King Charles I, knighted and housed at the king’s expense, and began producing paintings – almost all portraits. Portrait painting in England in the early seventeenth century was similar to Elizabethan portraiture. Fabrics and jewellery were minutely and beautifully depicted; while faces often had the appearance of expressionless masks. Van Dyck’s paintings, by contrast, with their command of perspective and space, confident brushwork and sense of movement, set a new standard to which his contemporaries and successors aspired. Artists ranging from Gainsborough to Sargent turned to him for inspiration.

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