This is among the biggest paintings in the National Gallery; drawing you in from the central lobby with its stark and imposing image of an important looking man astride a big horse. It is, of course, Charles I as conquering hero and emperor of England and Scotland. We are staring up at blatant piece of Stuart state propaganda.
Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, 1637/8
by Van Dyck
Who paid for the picture?
This is one of a number of the many portraits commissioned by Charles I to demonstrate his right to rule. He wanted to be seen as a Roman Emperor. Van Dyck as court artist is careful to hammer the messages home by including the symbols of absolute power. Interestingly, the painting would only have been seen by foreign ambassadors and members of Charles’ inner circle. It was not for the masses to gawp at.
The scale of the painting plays all sorts of trick on our eyes. It is impossible from this painting to appreciate that Charles was less than 5ft tall with bowlegs from childhood rickets.
Van Dyck captures the king as superior, confidently mounted on a great horse like the statues of Roman emperors. His image projects the King's right to rule stemming as much from his innate superiority as from his coronation.
The painting was hung at the end of a long gallery at Hampton Court Palace. Its position meant that foreign dignitaries viewed the painting from the same position as it is currently hung in the National Gallery looking up via his heel.
Although a secular work, it shows the King communing not with his subjects but with his maker. Charles wears a gold medallion of St. George, indicating his role as sovereign Knight of the Garter (the most important decorative order within English heraldry).
On the tree to the right of the composition hangs a small tablet inscribed, “CAROLUS I REX MAGNAE BRITANIAE.” This title refers to Charles dual reign over England and Scotland. Directly below this plaque, and significant because of this proximity, is a page holding an elaborate knight’s helmet bearing the plume of The Infanta. Charles had unsuccessfully tried to marry the Spanish princess’ in 1623, to no avail. However, the depiction of this helmet indicates the Spanish influence in English politics at that time.
Van Dyck renders the majority of the horse very realistically, but he may have taken some artistic liberty to express the horse’s power and virility. The horse’s powerful body is in stark contrast to its delicate ears. The ears’ swivelled position suggests that the horse is ultimately “listening” to the rider. By depicting the horse’s head slightly smaller and emphasizing its neck muscles, Van Dyck makes clear the allusion to power which extends to Charles I; the character of the mount indicates that of the rider Charles I as conquering hero.
The art of any period tends to serve the needs of the ruling class. How it does this varies from time to time. Autocratic rulers have specific communications needs.
Paintings like this tell us a lot about how a King saw the world. Van Dyck's talents were used as a way of producing images of Charles that matched his views of the world. But these were turbulent times. Just ten years after it was painted, the Royalists were routed by Cromwell and the painting's subject lost his head.
Charles was very aware of the importance of portraiture in determining how he was seen by others, and appreciated not only Dyck's mastery as a painter, but also the artist's manner of presenting him as a ruler.
The power of Van Dyck extended beyond Charles I. He introduced new genres into English painting: groups of children without their parents; "friendship portraits" of pairs of men or women; Titianesque poses of the ruler on horseback, the hunter with his loyal dog or the statesman with his attentive secretary; allegorical pictures of aristocrats posing as figures in pagan or Christian mythology or clad in the costume of pastoral romance; portraits of men and women against a background of curtains, classical columns, bare rocks or wild landscape, each carrying a different symbolic meaning.
Van Dyck was the major influence on English portraiture. Peter Lely, Charles II's court painter, followed Van Dyck's practice of painting women in loose undress. The Restoration etcher Richard Gaywood reworked a print of Van Dyck's Margaret Lemon into a supposed portrait of Nell Gwyn. William III's court painter Godfrey Kneller based his portrait of the monarch on Van Dyck's Charles I in Robes of State
A painting with a journey
The Royal Collection was dispersed under the Commonwealth, following the English Civil War and this Equestrian Portrait was sold to Sir Balthazar Gerbier, formerly the king's agent in Antwerp, for £200 on 21 June 1650.
It was acquired by Gisbert van Ceulen, who sold it to Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria and Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, in 1698, but was soon taken from Munich as booty of war by Emperor Joseph I.
He presented the painting to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, in November 1706. It was displayed at Blenheim Palace until the 8th Duke of Marlborough sold it to the National Gallery in 1885.
He commissioned Van Dyck to produce this painting so that it was similar to Titian's Equestrian Portrait of Charles V of the Hapsburgs (currently in the Prado, Madrid). Charles was driven by an obsession to compete with the French and Spanish courts and used blatantly propagandist paintings to reinforce his position as a ruler.
Despite being a disastrous ruler who lost his head in the English Revolution Charles I was an informed art collector with nearly 2,000 top rate Renaissance works in his various palaces. There is some debate as to whether he was more a collector maniac than a connoisseur. He was a great Titian fan, owning a number of his paintings, which in his view added to the prestige of his royal court.
He and his courtiers brought to England, for the first time, the awareness of taste and the development of collecting habits similar to those among royal houses in continental Europe.
His patronage of Van Dyck served a political rather than aesthetic agenda: to Charles, Van Dyck was a valuable political tool to be deployed strategically.
Charles paid handsomely for Van Dyck to live in a waterside house in Blackfriars in London, with a garden, and a jetty where the royal barge could be moored whenever the King got an urge to visit the artist’s studio.
He also provided him with rooms at the royal palace of Eltham, Kent, paid him an annual pension of £200, and had him knighted at St James’ Palace on 5 July 1632.
Fascinating Facts About Van Dyck
Anthony van Dyck, by Peter Paul Rubens (1627–28)
Van Dyck came to England in 1632, at Charles's invitation. He was the first image maker of European rulers yet he only lived in England for 4 years.
Van Dyck revolutionised the course of British art and transformed the portrait, in particular, into something more than just a painted face.
His portraits are not merely the products of a commissioned
artist: they represent the political ideologies of a lavish and ostentatious court that was to be swept away
within a year of the artist’s death on 9 December 1641.
Van Dyck's work is a testament of his achievement to capture Stuart Britain, and specifically the British aristocracy at the time.
He fundamentally changed how the British saw themselves by introducing an unprecedented level of glamour, bravura, and sophistication into British portraiture.
He died at the age of 42 .
Van Dyck's Paintings
Charles I at the Hunt, c 1635.
Lord John Stuart and His Brother Lord Bernard Stuart, 1638
Equestrian Portrait of Charles V, by Titian