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The Young Van Dyck Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Museo del Prado presents one of the largest exhibitions on Van Dyck (1599-1641) held to date and the first on his paintings and drawings to be organised in Spain. The exhibition, sponsored by Fundación BBVA, will be inaugurated next Monday 19 November by Her Majesty the Queen, coinciding with the commemoration of the 193th anniversary of the Museum.

Opening on 20 November, the exhibition is entirely focused on the artist’s early work and features more than 90 paintings and drawings spanning the years between approximately 1615 when Van Dyck was fifteen, to 1621 when he left Antwerp for Italy. During these six years of his early career the intellectually restless and remarkably prolific young artist produced around 160 paintings, many of them of large scale and creative ambition, of which the Prado possesses the most important collection.

The Young Van Dyck

Self-portrait, Van Dyck. Oil on panel, 43 x 32.5 cm, ca. 1615, Vienna, Gëmaldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenen Künste

Anthony van Dyck is one of the few artists over the course of history to reveal an astonishingly precocious talent. This exhibition opens with a self-portrait of around 1615 executed when he was only fifteen or sixteen. It concludes in 1621, the date when he moved to Italy from his native city of Antwerp. During those six years in Antwerp and until the age of twenty-two, Van Dyck produced more than 160 works including portraits and medium sized compositions as well as around thirty ambitious, large-format paintings. His close relations with Rubens, who employed him as his assistant, gives rise to some of the most interesting questions relating to this period: why did Van Dyck produce some works that were as close as possible to those of his master but distanced himself in others, giving his figures a naturalistic appearance that was quite different to Rubens’s idealisation?

Explaining the evolution of this young and often contradictory painter in addition to revealing the remarkable quality of his work at this period are the aims of the present exhibition, which includes fifty-two paintings and forty drawings. This group will manifest Van Dyck’s precocious talent, which is evident not only in the large number of works that he produced but also in their quality. Had he only produced the works of his early period, Van Dyck could still be considered one of the most important painters of the 17th century.

This will be one of the largest exhibitions devoted to the artist to date, the first to be held on his painting in Spain and the first to focus on his early period since the one held at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, in 1980. The Prado has the most important collection of Van Dyck’s early paintings, of which five will be seen in the present exhibition. Aside from the Prado, the most important early works by the artist are now housed in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, and the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Both institutions have supported this project with the loan of works (four from Dresden and two from Saint Petersburg).

Van Dyck, who was Rubens’s most talented pupil, set out to define his style at the very start of his career and this awareness of creating a personal approach was a new concept at the time. His earliest compositions are slightly hesitant and experimental in the depiction of the bodies, as evident in Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (Indianapolis Museum of Art), The Lamentation (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and The drunken Silenus. They reveal Van Dyck’s experimental approach and a pronounced artistic personality that actively sought out new artistic resources in order to increase the impact of the work on the viewer.

In contrast, in works such as The Crowning with Thorns (Museo del Prado) Van Dyck reflects the powerful influence of the time that he spent working for Rubens (1577-1640), which is evident in that work in the similarity of the figures to those of Rubens, although once again it reflects an overall desire to define a personal and individual style. Van Dyck’s interest in textures and in rough, powerfully realistic bodies contrasts with the idealised beauty with which Rubens depicted his figures.

From 1617 or slightly earlier to 1621 Van Dyck worked in Rubens’s studio where he revealed himself superior to the other assistants. This is demonstrated by the fact that he is the only one to be mentioned by name in a contract that Rubens signed and which states that various works should be painted by his hand and by “Van Dyck and other pupils”.

It should be emphasised that despite the closeness that he achieved to Rubens’s style, Van Dyck eventually evolved a highly unique manner, evident in some of the exceptionally original masterpieces to be seen in the present exhibition such as Saint Jerome in the Desert (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) and The Taking of Christ (Museo del Prado), which was probably one of the last works that he executed before leaving for Italy in the autumn of 1621 and the largest composition that he painted during his early period.

The exhibition ends with Van Dyck’s portrait of Rubens’s first wife, Isabella Brandt of 1621 (National Gallery of Art de Washington), which he gave his master as a gift before leaving for Italy, according to contemporary accounts. In that work and other portraits of this period Van Dyck reveals a highly personal style defined by the fluid, slender forms and elegant poses, characteristics that would subsequently make him one of the most influential portraitists in the history of European art.

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