By Tony Schwab, Staff Writer
The Anthony Van Dyck show at the Frick Gallery captures the full range of a great artist’s skill. Including both the sketches that established Van Dyck as talented and the paintings that drew him comparisons to his teacher Peter Paul Reubens and to his contemporaries Rembrandt and Velazquez, it is as good as any exhibit currently in New York.
Van Dyck was born in 1599 in Antwerp, a city in what is now Belgium. Recognized as a promising artist from a young age, he became the assistant to Reubens, then the leading painter in Europe, at age 20. In 1621 he left Antwerp for six years to work in Italy. In 1632, he became the official English court painter due to the great admiration King George I held for him.
The wide variety of Van Dyck’s sketches show how he came to be so skilled at capturing the character of his subjects. Working in a medium in which those depicted must be flattered to some extent, he still conveys their uniqueness through small details. Some people appear distinguished in a very serious way, with stiff facial features. Others are made to seem more relaxed, drawn relaxed and smiling.
Van Dyck’s early paintings stand out as his strongest. There is an amazing range of color, texture and subject matter. A self-portrait shows the young artist as a somewhat dandyish figure, leaning theatrically over a pillar with a dramatic dark night in the background. Here the brushstrokes are loose and playful. “Portrait of a Seventy Year Old Man” shows its subject in a black robe in front of a matching black background, his solemn, defiant face surrounded with hints of a death to come. “Portrait of a Carmelite Friar” shows a subject tired and worn out, but somewhat innocent looking. Van Dyck’s sense of religious devotion is very clear.
An especially acclaimed work from this period is “Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio.” A massive work, it shows its subject in a beautiful red and white robe in his study. Depicting him from an unusually low angle gives him a sense of grandeur fitting of someone who was a devoted patron of the arts throughout his life.
Van Dyck’s work as English court painter can sometimes seem impersonal, showing his royal subjects with a seriousness that seems dreary at times. Nonetheless, there are beautiful paintings from this period. “Charles I and Henrietta Maria Holding a Laurel Wreath” shows the two in magnificently rendered formal wear. The standout of late period Van Dyck is “Francois Langlois Playing a Musette.” Extremely naturalistic, with a beautiful mix of blue, red, and grey, there is a sense of the simple joy of life that resembles the work of Frans Hals.