The portrait of Charles I of England, which the Louvre possesses, is a legendary masterpiece.
With his fist on his hip, on the sword’s side, his right hand resting on a high cane, the king turns his thin, fair head slightly, framed by a large hat. He looks calmly, confidently, and his whole attitude is that of a man accustomed to command. His jacket of gray silk is crossed by the harness which supports the sword. Underneath the red breeches and showing the silk stockings, soft boots of fawn leather, trimmed with spurs, imprison a nervous and elegant leg. A little behind, the favorite horse of the king is pawing, impatient, held by a squire dressed in red representing the knight of Hamilton; another servant, farther, wears the mantle of the sovereign. The mound where the characters are placed is shaded by the thick foliage of a tree, and on the distant planes there is a plain above which gray clouds flock in the blue sky.
This picture, of admirable composition, renders marvelously the elegant silhouette of Charles I., the most beautiful of the Stuarts. The work presents itself with a contented nobility, a dull and brilliant richness at the same time, a discreet sumptuousness which impresses, where one finds something in the manner of Rubens, but tempered, assuaged, as disciplined.
Van Dyck had long worked with Rubens, who called him “the best of his pupils.” His friendship was as profitable to him as his lessons. It was he who recommended him to the court of the Stuarts. Charles I, influenced by the praises of Rubens for his pupil and delighted by the portrait of Nicolas Laniere, his master of the chapel, painted by Van Dyck, invited him to come to him.
Van Dyck arrived in London and presented himself to the king whom he conquered at the first interview. He had a fine beauty, quite similar to that of Charles I., easy manners, a certain cavalier grace, and the lively and clear air of an accomplished man. His conversation was not less pleasing than his person; he had abundant and brilliant speech, nourished by a profound and disciplined knowledge by infinite tact. The King delighted in his company; he often went to his studio and, stripping with him all the constraints of etiquette, talked together about a thousand subjects while Van Dyck worked on his portrait. From this period date the numerous effigies of the king and the queen.
As a reward for his talent Van Dyck received the title of principal painter of their Majesties, was made a knight and had his lodgings at Blackfriars.
In his portrait of Charles I, Van Dyck had proved himself portraitist of genius, and it is not surprising that, wishing to follow the example of the sovereign, all the nobility envied the honor of posing before the great Flemish artist. Soon he was not able to take orders, he had to take collaborators to paint the accessories, reserving only the heads and the hands. When he had succeeded, he was free to increase his prices, and gained considerable sums, which he expended largely. His house was mounted on a magnificent foot, he possessed a numerous and elegant crew, and afforded such good cheer that few princes were as much visited and served as he was.
In 1639 he married Mary Ruthven, the queen’s maid of honor, granddaughter of Lord Ruthven, of whom he had a daughter. His wife did not bring her dowry, but she was considered one of the most wonderful beauties of her time. This union was of short duration. His life of work and pleasure had undermined the health of Van Dyck, and although Charles I had promised three hundred livres to the physician if he saved him, the great painter died at Blackfriars, December 9, 1641, only forty-two years.
“No less colourist than Rubens,” writes Theophile Gautier, “but finer and more elegant than his master, Van Dyck seems to have been created to paint kings, princes, duchesses, all the world of high life, an end of race, aristocratic, of a hereditary magnificence, and marching over the multitude like the gods walk on the clouds. He painted with an easy and noble touch, with a brilliant but vigorous color and a rapid penetration of character, heads that one would never see again, masks whose mold was broken, expressions of existences forever fainted.”
The portrait of Charles I entered the national domain quite curiously. At the sale of the Comte de Thiers, who possessed it, the Countess Du Barry bought it for a sum of 24,000 livres. And as she was asked why she had chosen this painting in preference to the others in the collection, which seemed to suit her better, she replied that it was a portrait of a family, for she pretended to hold the house of the Stuarts. Later she yielded it to M. d’Angivillers at the same rate, on behalf of the King.
This picture occupies today in the Louvre the room Van Dyck which precedes the new room of the Rubens.
Height: 2.72 – Width: 2.12 – Figures in full size natural size.