Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture

Anthony Van Dyck: Mary, Lady Van Dyke, née Ruthven, circa 1640

“At the Frick, two rooms on the main floor are devoted to the full-sized portraits. In the basement are smaller paintings, including three precocious self-portraits, and drawings, grisailles, and etchings from a project that is really [Anthony] Van Dyck’s memorial to the Antwerp of his day, known as the Iconographie. This was a loose collection of portraits of painters, collectors, intellectuals, princes, and generals that were made to be engraved. There is something of a prejudice today against engraving as an art. It is at one remove from the work of the artist’s own hand, whether that work was an etching or a drawing or one of these fascinating paintings en grisaille, which come from the collection of Peter Lely, Van Dyck’s successor artist in Restoration London.

Van Dyck made very few etchings, but they are of extraordinary quality, especially when seen in their earlier states. The self-portrait, the head of Snyders, the drawing and the etching of Pieter Breughel the Younger—you realize what Van Dyck would have done had he chosen to pursue this kind of work. There is much that he didn’t do—he didn’t have a late style, for instance; he didn’t live long enough, dying at forty-two. One feels though that there was nothing he could not have done, had the occasion arisen.”

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