Save Van Dyck! (ctd.)

November 28 2013

Image of Save Van Dyck! (ctd.)

Picture: Philip Mould & Co.

An artist reader writes:

Could you please show all Van Dyck fans a photograph of his superb self portrait without the frame? 

I imagine that having bought it, you must have taken it out of its frame and had it photographed at the same time. Though it is a superb example of early framing in its own right, its brightness distracts one from seeing this dark painting properly.

Is there any evidence that the frame was made for the painting or  that it was framed like this during Van Dycks's lifetime?

As you can see above, a reader's wish is AHN's command. Don't tell anyone, but I think I prefer the picture out of its frame. The portrait seems more direct and unassuming, and it could be that the elaborate frame makes one interpret Van Dyck's characterisation as more self-confident than he intended. If the portrait was painted as late in his career as art historians suspect, then it was at a time of great uncertainty in his life. Obviously, this is all speculation, and nor do we know to what extent Van Dyck conceived the picture as always being presented in its current frame. Interestingly, the unframed image shows (in the way the drapery is painted at the bottom) that Van Dyck always intended the picture to be an oval.

Update - excellent piece by historian Andrew Roberts in the Spectator on the NPG's campaign:

Why should a portrait of a Flemish painter by a Flemish painter be considered so important to Britain that the culture minister Ed Vaizey has slapped a three-month export delay on it, and the National Portrait Gallery has announced a £12.5 million campaign to keep it in the country? Moreover, why is it so important that after reading this article you should immediately go to www.savevandyck.org and make a generous contribution to save it from going abroad? The answer lies in four words: Sir Anthony Van Dyck.

No other single artist has had such an impact on British art as Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641) not only in his own lifetime but also — as the 2009 Tate Britain’s exhibition demonstrated — right up to the 20th century. He was by far the most influential painter to have worked in Britain during the 17th century and must be seen as the launching point for so much of what happened artistically in subsequent generations. Van Dyck decisively turned British portraiture away from the stiff, formal, ‘iconic’ approach of Tudor and Jacobean painting, replacing it with that distinctive, fluid, shimmering, painterly style which was to dominate portraiture for nearly three centuries after his death. Making Britain his home from the beginning of his second visit in 1632 until his tragically early death in 1641, he painted the royal family and scores of other notable contemporaries. Flemish by birth, he was British by conviction; royalist by politics and patronage (he was knighted by Charles I), he was nonetheless utterly revolutionary as a painter. After him portraits weren’t just of people, they were about people.

Roberts concludes:

Of all the great British portrait painters, Van Dyck is by far the most important not to be represented by his own portrait in one of the great British public collections, considering how central he is to the history of the British school of painting and how his influence has grown over the centuries. ‘We are all going to Heaven,’ Gainsborough said on his deathbed, ‘and Van Dyck is of the company.’ For the National Portrait Gallery, the story of Britain that it attempts to tell through portraiture is simply incomplete without a portrait of Van Dyck, which has long been identified as one of the major lacunae in its otherwise superb collection.

This is the only chance a museum or a gallery in the United Kingdom has of acquiring the masterpiece, and it’s the only portrait of the artist ever likely to be made available for acquisition by a British public collection. Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, has described it as ‘undoubtedly one of the finest and most important self-portraits in the history of British art’.

What kind of a people are we if we allow this picture to be lost to Britain? Hit that website!

Update II - an artist replies:

A painter replies:

Thank you so much for showing us Van Dyck's self portrait without its  frame.

How much better it looks and how much more one can see!

I hope the NPG will exhibit it in a plain dark frame with maybe the gold frame hung alongside at a safe distance.

I speculate that the oval shape was chosen partly  to avoid distracting from the face by showing too much of his painting arm going out of  the bottom  of the painting on the right, as would occur with a rectangular frame. (in mirror image of course)

We now see him as his sitters would have seen him. To the women, a romantic face with a soulful, intense gaze;

to the men a graceful, flamboyant and fashionable figure whose attributes they or their parents desired to be transferred, to their own likenesses by his peculiar magic and genius.

This painting is an object lesson in the extreme economy of means exhibited by the greatest portrait painters (Velasquez, Vermeer, Hals, Sargent) which nevertheless fool the eye into believing there is far more detail than that actually painted. The colours used are very few: Lead white, crimson, blue, black, ochre, umber, and perhaps a colour equivalent to 'indian red'.

The whole canvas is underpainted in a medium 'ocherish' brown This is allowed to show through, untouched, in the hair on the left, the eyebrow, and the whole, moustache area. The details of the hair framing the face  and the moustache are then 'drawn' in over the underpaint  with a darker umber painted with a long sable brush. The whole backround on the left is then overpainted in a darker brown to make the adjacent hair look lighter. By contrast the hair on the right appears darker agaist the original underpaint.

The rest of the face is painted with an opaque impasto. The shaved areas of the jaw are given a bluish tinge and the bridge of the nose, the corner of the eye and  the cheekbone a hint of crimson. Masterly highlights which throw the face into relief, run from the brow through the eyelid to the  tip of the nose. The iris and the edge of the lower eyelid below have restrained but perfectly placed  dots of paint adding a liquid quality to his gaze.To the right of the iris, the eyeball  is given its roundness by the contrast between the warm reflected light on its upper surface and the cooler area below.

Above the nostril, ( outlined in umber)  a cool shadowy plane terminates at the tip of the nose in a pink rectangular highlight, visually linked to the highlight in the hollow next to the corner of the eye. The overall effect is to produce an illusion of three dimensionality from which Bernini could have made a marble bust.

The rapidly dashed in light areas of collar and slashing were probably painted in after an initial drying of the painting, certainly not 'wet on wet'. Maybe on a different day, with different clothes whose startling and effective contrast  was suddenly noticed in the studio mirror.

Update III - in the Evening Standard, the Great Brian Sewell has blessed us with his view on the appeal, and recoils at the picture being sold to a collector for more than it was bought at auction - in other words (gasp) 'a profit'. In the meantime he also sticks the boot into 'Fake or Fortune?', which he calls 'dire'. So suddenly this blog's admiration for Brian has taken a dive. Anyway...

Brian's ultimate point is that the the National Portrait Gallery should have been in the auction room in 2009 (not 2010, as Brian claims) when the portrait was sold for £8.4m. Thus the NPG could have 'saved' the nation a few million, now that the price is £12.5m. But Brian makes the mistake of assuming that had the NPG bid in 2009, the final price would have been just a little bit more than £8.4m. Which is not true. How does Brian know where we, as the ultimate buyers (in partnership with Alfred Bader fine arts) would have stopped bidding? I can tell you now that the NPG would not have got it at auction for less than the asking price today.

It may rankle Brian that galleries like the one I work for, Philip Mould & Company, have, as specialist dealers in the market, a sharper view of what a certain variety of pictures are worth. But I'm afraid we do. The fact that we have since sold the picture to a private collector for £12.5m should be proof enough of that. There is also then the fact that no museum can gather together within just a month or so (the time between a catalogue appearing and an auction) the sort of funding necessary to buy the Van Dyck self-portrait (which was estimated at just £2m-£3m). In such a scenario, it may well fall to dealers like us to buy a picture and allow the fundraising effort to take place with appropriate time. I'm pretty sure that if a private buyer had outbid us at the 2009 auction, and then applied for an export licence, the picture would have left the country. In those days the Heritage Lottery Fund rarely considered picture acquisitions, and the government of the day had just axed by 50% the National Heritage Memorial Fund, so no museum would have been able to stop the picture going overseas. You could argue, therefore, that if we hadn't stepped in to buy it, the picture would almost certainly have been lost by now.

But that's enough about capitalism, let's get back to the art history.

Update IV: a reader writes:

I think you have misrepresented the Great Brian’s point.

He was not saying that the NPG should have been in the auction room – in fact, he explicitly says: “The auction sets a price over which a national gallery or museum has had no influence; if at that figure a gallery decides that the picture (or any other treasure) should be in its collection, then we should have a system that allows it to match the final bid.”

In essence the tweak he is arguing for is that private dealers in the UK are treated the same as foreign buyers.

Obviously dealers have an advantage when it comes to the agility required to raise substantial funding for a painting within a month – isn’t Sewell’s precise complaint that he doesn’t think that this difference in agility should produce the potential for a large profit that comes out of public money?

The case argued for above is similar to that in France, where museums can arbitrarily declare a work 'bought' after an auction, and stop cultural objects leaving the country that way. However, it is a grossly unfair system to the vendor, and is designed simply to allow the state to buy works on the cheap. French museums don't bid on the work at auction, and so the price reached doesn't properly reflect the demand for it. Furthermore, for most important works, everyone knows it'll be declared bought by the state, so very few people bother to bid. This is not good news for the poor seller. The system we have in the UK is a very fair one, and allows an important work of art like the Van Dyck to be sold for its full value.

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