Book Review: Van Dyck: A complete catalogue of the paintings

The publication of this magisterial catalogue by four leading scholars is a momentous event in the study of both Van Dyck and European portraiture. While all four authors collaborated closely (an unattributed photograph by the Duke of Buccleuch on the dust jacket shows them at Boughton), each is responsible for a clearly defined period: de Poorter for the early Antwerp years, in which the precocious artist, formidable already in his teens, responds to and challenges the artistic near-hegemony of Rubens; Barnes for the Italian period (1621?1627), the most familiar masterpieces of which are the extraordinary Genoese portraits, executed with breathless speed and astonishing bravura; Vey for the second Antwerp phase (1627?1632), years that saw Van Dyck at the height of his powers, with a coda in Brussels in 1634?1635; and Millar for the English period, from 1632 until the artist’s death in 1641, punctuated by the Brussels visit, years in which Van Dyck gave new meaning to the role of court painter and established the canon by which British portraiture was judged for 250 years.

The authors introduce their sections with an essay, which is followed by full catalogue entries for the extant pictures, a total of some 745, as well as more than 80 copies of lost works. When it is re-membered how scattered the oeuvre is, something of the logistical achievement this volume represents can be understood.

For Country Life readers, Sir Oliver Millar’s section of the book is of paramount interest. A half-century’s pursuit of the artist informs all of his essay, and the catalogue reads like a survey of all that was most brilliant in the glamorous?yet brittle?court of Charles I. Van Dyck’s portraits of the King gave him distinction in life and haunt posterity’s view of him; Queen Henrietta Maria was equally well served, for the painter implies nothing of her tragic capacity to tender poor advice, as were their children. But, however well cast for the role of court painter, Van Dyck never lost his early ability to register the character of a sitter.

He tells us, in the language of Titian, of the dynastic hauteur of Lord Arundel and the determination of Lord Strafford. He implies the equivocal conduct of Lady Castlehaven and, in a sequence of five portraits?the most miraculous of which is at Petworth?celebrates, at once, the beauty, charm and probity of Anne, Lady Russell.

Van Dyck’s importance for subsequent painters in England was due to both his reinvention of the grand manner and his understanding of the taste for informality of so many British patrons. His Eng-lish oeuvre?Millar catalogues 264 portraits and a further 37 copies of lost prototypes?was drawn on not only by his most immediate successors, Dobson and Lely, but also by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Lawrence and even Sargent (so many of whose patrons were in the plutocratic world of the collectors of the artist’s work now in American institutions). Replacing, at last, the Klassiker der Kunst volume of Glück, published in 1931, this collaborative monograph means that the work of one of the greatest and most productive of all portrait painters can finally be considered in full.