The Portrait

The Artist

Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) was by far the most influential portrait painter ever to have worked in Britain. Born in Antwerp, he trained in the studio of Hendrik van Balen and became Peter Paul Rubens’ most talented assistant before travelling to England to the court of King Charles I, who gave him a knighthood and appointed him Principal Painter.

It is through this artist’s eyes that we see the central personalities at court in that critical period of British history. Moreover, it was Van Dyck’s influence that turned British portraiture away from the stiff, formal, ‘iconic’ approach of Tudor and Jacobean painting; his distinctive fluid, shimmering style and elegant compositions dominated portraiture in Britain for the next three centuries. The importance of Van Dyck is best encapsulated by Thomas Gainsborough’s famous deathbed remark: ‘We are all going to Heaven and Van Dyck is of the company.’

The Painting

Anthony van Dyck’s final self-portrait (1640-41) is a work of huge international importance and one of just three self-portraits he is known to have created in Britain.

This painting dates from the very end of Van Dyck’s life and presents a direct, intimate image of an artist at work. He shows himself fashionably dressed but apparently in the act of painting, the line of his right shoulder and sleeve suggesting his hand is applying paint to a canvas just out of sight. For the present-day viewer it conveys a sense of direct engagement with Van Dyck as an individual, despite the passage of almost 400 years. Within a year of producing this portrait Van Dyck would be dead, buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral with the epitaph: ‘Anthony Van Dyck – who, while he lived, gave to many immortal life’.



<em>Sir Anthony van Dyck</em>, by Sir Anthony van Dyck, circa 1640 - NPG 6987 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Anthony van Dyck
by Sir Anthony van Dyck, circa 1640
NPG 6987
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The Frame

The exceptional frame of this painting is of outstanding importance. Its unusually elaborate and exuberant carving has led some commentators to suggest that it was made much later than the painting, but recent research by Jacob Simon, formerly Chief Curator of the National Portrait Gallery, shows that it is almost certainly contemporary with the painting, and is likely to have been influenced by the painter himself and designed with his involvement. The sunflower motif at the top of the frame echoes the sunflower in the earlier English self-portrait and seems to have become a kind of motif or impresa for the artist.

The self-portrait by Dobson in the Jersey collection is framed in what appears to be an almost identical manner. However, closer inspection of the two frames suggests that the Dobson frame is a later copy of the Van Dyck frame, probably put on the painting when the two were paired by Richard Graham in the early eighteenth century. The Van Dyck frame is made of oak, which had ceased to be the favoured material of British frame-makers after the middle of the seventeenth century. The Dobson frame, which is constructed differently, is made of pine, suggesting a later date for its manufacture.

Find out more

Download a learning resource for Secondary Art teachers to explore the Gallery’s Collection of portraits by Van Dyck.

Find out more about Van Dyck in the Gallery’s Collection