Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Charles I amassed a famously impressive collection of paintings in which Titian was particularly well represented. In Anthony van Dyck he found a soul mate who was equally devoted to the great Venetian having studied his work during a six-year stay in Italy in the 1620s. After van Dyck’s return to his native Antwerp, where his services were very soon much in demand, Charles commissioned works from him and in 1632 he persuaded him to move to London. Van Dyck received a knighthood and embarked on a series of images of the king and the royal family of which this equestrian portrait is the most iconic.
By 1636 or 1637 when this picture was painted Charles was well on his way to his destiny as a royal martyr — or as a divisive and double dealing ‘man of blood’, depending on your point of view. He was nearing the end of an eleven-year period of personal rule, eschewing recourse to parliament which he saw as troublesome and impertinent. Only a few years later in 1642 he found himself at war with parliament — the most prosperous parts of his kingdom, including his capital, implacably opposed to his policies and his style of government. As the tragedy of civil war reached a climax, this singularly stupid monarch seemed to be incapable of grasping the fact that his power was now considerably proscribed — his persistent and ill-advised scheming sealed his fate and he was executed only twelve years after van Dyck’s apotheosis of imperious monarchy.
This huge portrait reflects Charles’s efforts to bolster his claims to absolute kingship. It is an icon proclaiming his divine right as king to exercise unbridled power. Its sheer size (over three and a half metres high) is designed to overawe the viewer — the sovereign’s commanding presence sits astride his horse well above our eye line. The composition is a reiteration of the archetypal ‘king as warrior’ image but it also harks back to the equestrian portrait of the Emperor Charles V (now in Madrid) by that hero of both monarch and artist, Titian; and of course that reference could only strengthen, in the mind of the informed viewer, Charles’ pretensions to emulate the absolute power of his namesake. Of course, the king’s commander’s baton and his armour would be in use only too soon — and through their use his pretensions to unqualified power would be dashed.
The mounted monarch is depicted in a autumnal landscape — a cloudy blue sky presides over a vista which disappears to a distant horizon. The king’s head is set against dark clouds making sure that despite the size of the canvas this natural focal point draws the eye.
With this picture and many others depicting Charles, his family and the British aristocracy, van Dyck created a style which proved to be the model for the long tradition of portrait painting in the British Isles.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
c1636 Peter Paul Rubens: The Rainbow, London, The Wallace Collection
1637 Nicolas Poussin: Rape of the Sabine Women, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1639 Claude Lorrain: Seaport at Sunset, Paris, Musée du Louvre