Sir Anton van Dyck (1599-1641), the famous Flemish painter, was noted primarily for his portraits and religious canvases.
His gifts as an artist manifested themselves early in his life; he opened his own studio in Antwerp at the age of 16 and became a master of the city's artist's guild 2 years later. Between 1618 and 1620 he collaborated with Peter Paul Rubens, working with him as a younger colleague rather than as a student. He was later to attain a reputation second only to Rubens as the greatest painter in mid-17th-century Europe. Van Dyck owed much to Rubens and, like him, was strongly influenced by Titian's handling of colour and composition.
Van Dyck's name is inextricably associated with the history of English painting; he made his first trip to London in 1620, where he was granted a court pension. With royal permission he left England in 1621 for Italy, where he studied, travelled, and painted until 1627. The full-length portrait Marchesa Elena Grimaldi (c.1625; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) exemplifies van Dyck's use of dark but harmonious colour and an air of regal dignity bordering on arrogance that made his work so popular in the court of Charles I.
Van Dyck returned to Antwerp in 1627 and in 1630 became court painter to Archduchess Isabella, regent of the Netherlands. He settled in London in 1632 and was knighted and appointed principal painter to Charles I in the same year. He painted many portraits of the royal family as well as of court dignitaries and the nobility. His “Charles I on Horseback” (1638; National Gallery, London), one of several equestrian portraits he executed of the King, is a tour de force of dazzling brushwork and foreshortening, expressing the image of majesty and overwhelming power the King wished to project.
Although much of van Dyck's work for the King had something of the flavour of image-building and propaganda about it, he was also capable of keen penetration and expression of character. His oval double portrait, “The Artist with Sir Endymion Porter” (c.1635, Prado, Madrid) reveals two worldly men, the painter and his patron, of sensitivity and intelligence.
Van Dyck also painted numerous religious and mythological subjects throughout his career. His debt to Italian Renaissance prototypes is, perhaps, clearer in these than in his portraits, as can be seen in Cupid and Psyche (c.1639; Royal Collections, Buckingham Palace, London).
Prior to van Dyck's arrival in England, English portraiture had tended to be formal and almost primitive in style, but he brought to it the full power of a completely articulated baroque style, and his influence extended through the 18th century. It is clearly visible in the work of Sir Peter Lely as well as in the portraits by Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds.