In today's world it would be hard to conceive. It would be the equivalent of closing up the National Gallery of Art in Washington, loading up a couple dozen semi-trucks with its contents, and carting them all off to Sotheby's in New York for the grand art auction to end all grand art auctions. Yet in the year 1650, in London, something like that actually happened. The art collection of England's King Charles I was sold at auction. A few pieces were held back of course, some portraits of the monarch, his Stuart ancestors, his father, James I, and a few other historic pieces, but 90% of it went on the block.
Of course to understand this radical turn of events in the art world, it might be helpful to recall that the king's head itself had, just the year before, also gone on the block...in this case the chopping block. In the culmination of a decades old rivalry between the monarchy and his enemies in parliament, the king lost. Regicide was a fact of life in Europe at the time, one of the chances one took in becoming king. The dissolution of his magnificent art collection was, in a sense, a symbolic act representing the dissolution of the monarchy itself. There were economic reasons too, of course. There were war debts to pay off, and if you can imagine it, the British government was broke. Some British generals, noblemen, and other court hangers on grabbed a few pieces for their magnificent country manors, but by and large the pieces mostly left the country. Art collecting had become all the rage in Europe at the time, and the various ruling families were known by the company they kept in terms of art and artists. And the greatest, most collectible artist of this time in all of Europe was Anthony van Dyck.
Sir Anthony (Charles I had knighted the Flemish painter in 1633) spent eight years in London, working full time for the monarchy. Born in 1599, in Antwerp, van Dyck was a child prodigy student of Peter Paul Rubens. By the time he was eighteen he had his own studio, turning out portraits, religious, and mythological pieces with an effortless skill even Rubens found remarkable. He spent seven years studying in Rome where his dignified, insightful, yet warmly informal portraits of aristocracy won him an international following.
Lured to London by the promise of a knighthood, his own palatial studio, and a stipend generous even by today's standard's, van Dyck proved not only to be a prodigy but also prodigious. In the eight years spent in London, he produced over 700 portraits, an almost unbelievable one per week. And they're all the more remarkable for their high quality. His portraits of the king are solemn, yet regal only in his depiction of the king's bearing, unlike the flamboyant caricatures of royalty Rigaud employed in painting Louis XIV. Van Dyck's Triple Portrait of Charles I from 1635 is typical, yet amazing in its depiction of the monarch in profile, full faced, and three-quarter view, all on the same canvas. Charles I was a man highly conscious of his own image, his own behaviour, and a king given to ruling by example. Van Dyck was, in a sense, his PR man, and a very good one at that. Van Dyck died in 1641. One has to wonder whether, if his image-maker had survived, the king might have also.