Anthony van Dyck by Anthony van Dyck

  • View larger image
[IMAGE] A white man with shoulder-length, wavy brown hair and a long moustache, stands with his body turned to the side, looking at the viewer over his shoulder. He is wearing a dark-coloured doublet with slashes in the fabric to reveal a white shirt underneath, with a large white collar.
A self-portrait by the highly influential painter Anthony van Dyck.
Sir Anthony van Dyck
by Sir Anthony van Dyck
oil on canvas, circa 1640
22 in. x 18 1/8 in. (560 mm x 460 mm) oval
NPG 6987
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 4 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) was a Flemish The people – and language – of Flanders in northern Belgium. artist who worked for King Charles I as his ‘Principal Painter’.

Van Dyck became the most influential portrait painter to have ever worked in Britain. He changed the way portraits were painted, making them more expressive and less formal, and setting new standards in skill and technique.  

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
[IMAGE] A white man with shoulder-length, wavy brown hair and a long moustache, stands with his body turned to the side, looking at the viewer over his shoulder. He is wearing a dark-coloured doublet with slashes in the fabric to reveal a white shirt underneath, with a large white collar.
Sir Anthony van Dyck, by Sir Anthony van Dyck, circa 1640

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • Van Dyck's body is turned to the side and he looks out at us, the viewer, over his shoulder. 
    • His arm reaches in front of him as if he is painting. 
    • His Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. is steady and calm. He looks as though he is concentrating. 
    • He is wearing a dark-coloured Doublet A short, tightly fitting jacket worn by men from the 1300s to the 1600s. with slashes in the fabric that reveal a white shirt underneath. It was probably made of an expensive fabric, such as silk.
    • We can see a large white collar that looks quite crumpled. This gives the portrait an informal appearance and also showcases Van Dyck’s skill as a painter.
    • His long wavy hair flows loosely over his shoulder. Men in the 1630s grew their hair long, in a style made popular by King Charles I.
    • He has a thick moustache and thin goatee beard. This type of beard is still known as a ‘Van Dyck beard’. 
    • Van Dyck shows himself as wealthy and fashionable.
    • He used Oil paint A type of paint where the pigment (colour) is mixed with plant oil. on canvas for the self-portrait. 
    • He has used small, delicate brushstrokes to paint his face. The direction of these brushstrokes helps to mould and shape the forms of his features. 
    • His skill as a painter can be seen in the tiny details such as the lines around his eyes and mouth. 
    • The technique he has used to paint his clothes is very different. 
    • He has used broad, fluid brushstrokes for the folds and slashes in the fabric and the fine linen of his collar. 
    • Van Dyck’s head and shoulders fill the composition. 
    • The plain background means that there are no distractions, which focusses our attention on him. 
    • Van Dyck has not used bright colours in the painting. The background is dark brown, and his clothes are black and white. We see colour only in his face and hair. He has used delicate pinks and creams to paint the skin, and reddish brown for his beard and hair. 
    • A light source from the left-hand side of the painting shines on the right side of his face and collar, making them stand out against the dark-coloured background.  
    • There is a visually striking contrast between the dark Doublet A short, tightly fitting jacket worn by men from the 1300s to the 1600s. , and the bright white of his collar. This, along with the slashes of white in his doublet, provides visual interest.
    • The clothing also provides balance to his face, with its sharp detail, and helps lead our Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. across the portrait. 
    • There is a sense of movement in the portrait. It seems to capture a moment in time, as if Van Dyck has turned to us to say something. 
    • This is partly due to the realistic way his face is painted – he looks like a real person – but the liveliness also comes from the fluid brush strokes he has used to paint the clothing, which suggest movement. 
    • Some viewers may see a mood of slight Melancholy A sad mood or feeling. . This is typical of many of Van Dyck’s portraits. 
    • The left side of his face is in shadow and blends into the dark background, introducing an element of mystery and drama. 
When Van Dyck came [to England] he brought face-painting to us; ever since which time ... England has excelled all the world in that great branch of the art.
Jonathan Richardson, 1715

Who was Anthony van Dyck?

  • Anthony van Dyck was born in 1599 in Antwerp, in modern-day Belgium.
  • As a young man, he worked as an assistant in the studio of the successful and established painter Peter Paul Rubens.
  • In 1632, Van Dyck came to England, where King Charles I recognised his talent and ability. He gave Van Dyck the job of ‘Principal Painter’ to the King, a house and a big salary. He also Knighted A special award given to a man by the British king or queen, which allows him to include the title ‘Sir’ before his name. him.
  • Van Dyck transformed Charles I’s public image through the Flatter To make somebody appear more attractive, more powerful or better than they are in reality. portraits he painted, which made the king look powerful and heroic. 
  • He also painted portraits of the wider royal family, members of the royal court and other wealthy individuals.
  • He produced a huge number of portraits, working in Flanders (in modern-day Belgium) and Italy, as well as in London.
  • Anthony van Dyck set new standards for British portraiture. His style was more expressive and realistic than the stiffer, more formal styles of earlier portraits. It captured a great sense of movement, appearing elegant and effortless.
  • Before Van Dyck, artists had been seen as skilled craftspeople rather than high-status individuals or creative geniuses. Van Dyck was the first artist in Britain to achieve celebrity status.
  • His distinctive style of painting portraits has continued to influence portraiture in Britain to the present day. 

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This portrait is one of three known self-portraits that Van Dyck painted while living in England. It probably dates from the last years of his life.  
  • It shows a leading and highly influential artist at the top of his game.
  • The sketchy, fluid treatment of the clothing compared to the fine brushwork of his face could suggest that the portrait may be unfinished. The clothing may be an Underpainting The initial layer of paint applied to a canvas or surface which serves as a basis for a painting. that Van Dyck intended to refine to match the brushwork of the face.  
  • Or perhaps Van Dyck was experimenting with his technique. As he was painting himself, he had more freedom to experiment with new styles than when he was painting portraits Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. by other people.   
  • The oak frame for this portrait is of outstanding importance and exceptional quality. It dates from the time of the portrait and Van Dyck was likely involved in its design. It is rare for an original frame from this period to have survived.  

Questions

  1. What do you think Anthony van Dyck is saying about himself in this self-portrait? Why do you think that?
  1. Why might Van Dyck have chosen to paint a self-portrait like this one?
  1. How would you style your clothes and hair in a self-portrait? What might this say about you?