The reign of Charles I is one of the most intriguing and hotly debated in British history. Yet the image of the king himself is largely shaped by the work of a brilliant Flemish artist, Anthony van Dyck, whose most intimate portrait of the king offers an important study of a troubled and mysterious man.
So how did this extraordinary painting, named ‘Charles I in Three Positions’, come about?
A brilliant artist
Anthony van Dyck was the seventh child of a wealthy Antwerp cloth merchant. He left school at the age of ten, becoming a pupil of the painter Hendrick van Balen. It was clear this was a precocious artist: his first fully independent works date from just 17-years-old, in around 1615.
Van Dyck grew up to become one of the most important Flemish painters of the 17th century, following his great inspiration, Peter Paul Rubens. He was also profoundly influenced by the Italian masters, namely Titian.
Van Dyck led an extremely successful career as a portraitist and painter of religious and mythological pictures, mainly in Antwerp and Italy. He worked for Charles I and his court from 1632 until his death in 1641 (a year before the English Civil War broke out). It was van Dyck’s elegant representations of Charles I and his court which transformed British portraiture and created a majestic image of the king which endures to this day.
A royal patron
Van Dyck’s skills greatly impressed King Charles I, who was a devout follower of the arts who built up a magnificent collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Charles not only collected great pieces, but he commissioned portraits from the most successful artists of the day, keenly aware of how his image would be interpreted in future generations.
Van Dyck’s ability to portray the human figure with natural authority and dignity, and to fuse iconography with naturalism greatly impressed Charles I. He painted the king many times in a variety of elegant representations: sometimes in ermine robes with full regalia, sometimes half-length beside his queen, Henrietta Maria, and sometimes on horseback in full armour.
Van Dyck’s most intimate, and perhaps most famous, portrait of the doomed king was ‘Charles I in Three Positions’. It was probably begun in the second half of 1635, created for the use of the Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini , who was tasked with making a marble portrait bust of the king. Bernini required a detailed view of the king’s head in profile, face on and a three-quarter view.
Charles set out his hopes for the marble bust in a letter to Lorenzo Bernini dated 17 March 1636, writing he hoped Bernini would produce “il Nostro Ritratto in Marmo, sopra quello che in un Quadro vi manderemo subiito” (meaning “Our Portrait in Marble, after the painted portrait which we shall send to you immediately”).
The bust was intended as a papal present to Queen Henrietta Maria: Urban VIII hoped it might encourage the king to lead England back into the Roman Catholic fold.
A triple portrait
Van Dyck’s oil painting was a brilliant guide for Bernini. It presents the king in three poses, dressed in three different costumes to provide options for Bernini to work with. For example, each head has a different coloured costume and a slight variation of lace collar.
In the central portrait, Charles wears a gold locket with an image of St George and the dragon on the blue ribbon around his neck. This is the Order of the Lesser George, which he wore at all times, even on the day of his execution. In the three-quarter view portrait on the right, the badge of the Order of the Knights of the Garter can be seen on his purple sleeve, at the right edge of the canvas.
The three positions also demonstrate the unusual fashion at the time, for men to wear their hair longer on the left, and shorter on the right.
Van Dyck’s use of the triple portrait was probably influenced by other great works: Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of a Goldsmith in Three Positions was in Charles I’s collection at this time. In turn, Charles’ portrait probably influenced Philippe de Champaigne, who painted a Triple Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu in 1642 to inform the sculptor tasked with producing a portrait bust.
Philippe de Champaigne: Triple portrait of Cardinal de Richelieu, 1642.The painting stayed in the collection of the Bernini family until it was purchased by George IV in 1822 for 1000 guineas. It now hangs in the Queen’s drawing-room at Windsor Castle. Many copies were made of van Dyck’s original. Some in the mid-18th century were commissioned by supporters of the Stuart royal family, and might have been used as a kind of icon by opponents of the Hanoverian dynasty.
A triumph in marble
The marble bust by Bernini was produced in the summer of 1636 and presented to the King and Queen on 17 July 1637, where it was much admired, “not only for the exquisiteness of the worke but the likenese and nere resemblance it had to the King countenaunce.”
Bernini was rewarded for his efforts in 1638 with a diamond ring worth £800. Queen Henrietta Maria commissioned Bernini to make a companion bust of her, but the troubles of the English Civil War intervened in 1642, and it was never made.
The magnificent bust of Charles I, although celebrated at the time, soon met an untimely end. It was displayed – alongside many other great pieces of art – in Whitehall Palace. This was one of the largest palaces in Europe and the centre of English royal power since 1530.
But on the afternoon of 4 January 1698, the palace faced disaster: one of the palace’s Dutch maidservants left linen sheets to dry on a charcoal brazier, unattended. The sheets ignited, setting fire to the bed hangings, which spread quickly through the timber-framed palatial complex.
Apart from the Banqueting House in Whitehall (which still stands) the entire palace burnt to cinders. Many great works of art perished in the flames, including Bernini’s bust of Charles I.