Prince of Painters Courted by a King; Art

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Byline: PHILIP HENSHER

Van Dyck Royal Academy (until December 10) **** (EXCELLENT)

Van Dyck belongs to a small but treasured group of artists. Like Holbein in the 16th Century, Fuseli in the 18th, or John Singer Sargent in Victorian times, he left his native country and came to England, lured by the promise of enlightened patronage and not much competition from the talentless locals.

In a way, the British have always relished those artists who choose to make Britain their home. Invention, eccentricity and wildness are easier to understand from some European with a mad hairstyle and a funny name than from, say, some plump Englishman whose father was an accountant in Wandsworth.

Van Dyck has been at the forefront of British art since he was brought to England by that artistically enlightened monarch Charles I and spent his last decade setting down a brilliant chronicle of a brilliant court.

Court painting didn't begin when Van Dyck arrived in England in 1632, of course. The sublime portraiture of Holbein for Henry VIII and the school of jewelled, fantastical painters encouraged by Elizabeth I show that the English rich were always interested in painting.

But when Van Dyck arrived in England, he found there was no one to match him; just a few ancient miniaturists and some pompous portraitists who, by European standards, were inept. Van Dyck was the most accomplished of Rubens's contemporaries and swept like a storm through English painting. He was lucky to find, in Charles I, a curious mind with a strong interest in new currents in art; the monarch was lucky to lure one of the most outstanding painters of the time to a cold, outlying and foggy island.

What Van Dyck did in his last decade is, at its best, sublimely inventive and truthful. But it's odd to see, in this exuberant exhibition, how slowly he moved towards that mastery. He had the reputation of being a uniquely able prodigy when a pupil of Rubens in Antwerp, which is frankly a bit puzzling.

The first galleries of this show are full of overconfident and wrongheaded painting. In his Christ Carrying The Cross, Christ peers out from the bottom of a pyramid of heads like a badger out of a sett.

Many of the early religious paintings are overcrowded, and the eye hardly knows what to pay attention to.

The problem with a lot of this early painting is over-enthusiasm for the new currents of the baroque. …