I went to see the van Dyck exhibition at Tate Britain the other day. I can’t say I was very excited by the prospect, but I’m a member and it seems silly to miss exhibitions I can get into for free. Perhaps especially if you’re English, Anthony van Dyck seems like the most establishment figure possible; court painter to Charles I, and primarily associated with grand portraits of aristocrats, above all the famous propaganda images of Charles himself. Which was what I expected and what I got: the least introspective portraits imaginable. People in shiny clothes standing around looking solid and respectable. I bet if Bernie Madoff ever produced any publicity material with his picture in, he found a photographer to make him look like that: with a sheen of prosperity, but carefully not allowed to look too exciting. Designed to conceal as much as it showed.
My favourite picture was actually one by Robert Peake the Elder, included to show what English court portraiture was like before Van Dyck, which normally lives in the Met in New York.
Gorgeous, innit. I’m not suggesting, btw, that this painting offers any more psychological insight than van Dyck does, just that I prefer it stylistically. I also preferred some of the later picture influenced by van Dyck, including some by Joshua Reynolds and Peter Lely. Most of van Dyck’s own work left me cold, although his self-portrait and his portrait of his wife have a bit more spark to them.