SEEING VAN DYCK IN DEPTH National Gallery show brings out qualities often overlooked



Baltimoreans who know their museum collections will find an old friend virtually enthroned in glory in Washington these days. Proceeding through the "Anthony Van Dyck" exhibition at the National Gallery (through Feb. 24), one turns at a certain point and sees at the end of a three-gallery-long vista the grand, the glorious "Rinaldo and Armida" from the Epstein collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Painted for Charles I of England in 1629, one of the works that persuaded the king to invite Van Dyck to England as his court painter, "Rinaldo and Armida" is the centerpiece of this exhibit of more than 100 works. And so it should be. Not only does it stand at about the chronological center of the creative period of the artist's short life (he died in 1641 at the age of 42), it sums up so much of his art.

Taken from the epic poem "Jerusalem Liberated," by Torquato Tasso (1581), it depicts a moment of high drama and emotion. The crusader Rinaldo has been lulled to sleep by the song of a water nymph so that the sorceress Armida can kill him. But she, gazing into his face, falls instantly in love.

Van Dyck has portrayed this moment with all the powers at his command. The sweep of drapery that occupies the center of the painting recalls similar passages of grandeur in other works and also conveys the tension of the moment -- the most dramatic of the story, for Van Dyck has chosen to depict its turning point.

The richness of color -- blue, red and gold -- and the glint of light on armor are characteristics one sees throughout Van Dyck's work. The tenderness of Armida's gaze indicates his ability to capture a hint -- and just a hint -- of something deeper beneath the magnificence of courtly splendor.

Moreover, the show's accompanying catalog points out that the overall sensuousness of the image as well as certain specific references in a water nymph and in a Cupid are owed to Titian. And Titian appears throughout the catalog as, along with Rubens, one of the principal formative influences on Van Dyck.

Anthony Van Dyck is perhaps not as well known as he should be, as he certainly will be to all those who see this exhibit. The Flemish master, born in 1599, became Rubens' chief assistant in his teens, appeared briefly at the court of James I of England in the early 1620s, and spent several years in Italy learning the lessons of such masters as Titian, Veronese and Guido Reni. But he is probably principally known for his portraits of English royalty and aristocracy while he was court painter to Charles I in the 1630s.

In fact, he has often been regarded as a pale follower of Rubens, more interested in mere portraits than in Rubens' sort of historical and allegorical dramas that were at least traditionally considered a higher form of art.

It is the purpose of this exhibit, on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of Van Dyck's death, to dispel what its organizers and the catalog's essays view as misconceptions about the artist. It is their contention that Van Dyck was indeed more than a follower: His art was his own synthesis of Rubens and the Venetian masters, particularly Titian; his religious and mythological paintings, such as "Rinaldo and Armida" or "The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine," are less sculptural than Rubens', softer and more sensuous; his portraits are not simply idealized facades but succeed at least at times in reflecting the more human qualities of their sitters; and he had a major influence on later portraitists, especially those of 18th century England including Gainsborough and Reynolds.

That "Anthony Van Dyck" taken as a whole -- catalog as well as show -- only partly succeeds in convincing us of all that is certainly not the fault of those who assembled the works. Unlike the National Gallery's concurrent "Titian" exhibit, which contains fewer works to reflect a career about three times as long, we do not in any way have a sense that Van Dyck is only partially represented here.

His entire career is laid before us, from "An Elderly Man" of 1613, probably his earliest painting, through the triumphs of the late 1620s and 1630s ("Rinaldo and Armida," "Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson" of 1633, "Cupid and Psyche" of 1639-1640).

If the portraits are the most numerous works, the religious and mythological paintings amply appear as well. Earlier ones include

"The Martyrdom of Saint Peter" (about 1616) in his early, "rough" style, and the affecting "Saint Sebastian Bound for Martyrdom" (1620 or 1621), the softness of the saint's flesh bespeaking his vulnerability.

Later one finds "Vertumnus and Pomona" (1625), suffused with a crepuscular glow, and the final lyricism of "Cupid and Psyche," which Oliver Millar in the catalog rightly calls "exquisite" and "a final tribute to Titian and Veronese."

In a related gallery we are even treated to a group of Van Dyck's oil sketches that shed light on his methods, including one of an "Armed Soldier on Horseback" in which the horse's movement, the rider's expression and the dynamic brushstroke combine to create an excitingly vital, modern work.

It is the portraits, for which Van Dyck has always been most famous, that fail to convince entirely. Not that they are less than splendidly done. Not that his mastery of color, of texture, of detail, is less than complete. Not that he is, in fact, other than a great painter.

But if the purpose of this exhibit is to place him in the pantheon of the world's greatest portraitists, it doesn't make it, for the portraits fail to communicate quite the humanity claimed for them.

They are not devoid of the quality altogether. But in so many of them the sitter's expression looks as put on for the occasion as the clothes he or she wears. And the fact that one wearies finally of the piece of flowing red drapery so often employed is only an indication that it is so much of what we do see.

If one looks at a mature portrait by Van Dyck, such as "Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson," and one by Titian -- for instance the "Portrait of Doge Andrea Gritti" (probably 1540s) -- the difference is clear. In the Titian, one senses not only what a crusty old bird he is but the pride and integrity that lie behind the facade and even something of how he got that way. It is a painting that evokes both an immediate and a sustained, deeply felt response.

The catalog entry for the Van Dyck states that of all the artist's portraits of the queen "none . . . captures to such a degree the complex personality of this extraordinary person," but it goes on to describe her clothes, the setting, her crown, the dwarf and the monkey with her, everything but her face save for a reference to "her long face with its prominent features." And no wonder, for in its tight smile and vaguely wary eyes there is only the merest hint of that "complex personality." This is a magnificent portrait, to be sure, but for things other than its communication of the deeper human qualities.

In some of Van Dyck's earlier portraits, such as "Portrait of a Family" (1619), of Rubens' wife "Isabella Brant" (1621), of "A Woman with her Daughter" (1629), and in some renderings of children who have not yet learned to wear a mask, we do have some sense of seeing a little behind the stage presence. But, despite his great strengths, Van Dyck possessed neither the subtlety of Titian, nor the penetration of Velazquez, nor the psychological insight of Rembrandt.

That, however, is to compare him with gods of Western art. If Van Dyck doesn't quite reach their exalted status, he is still a major figure of his time, and this exhibit is a superbly realized presentation of him. One could wish the catalog's essays, primarily devoted to aspects of his work, had included a lengthier and more complete general overview of the artist's life and career. But one could not wish for more from the show, except for that ultimate quality which the artist himself was not able to give us in full measure.

Van Dyck show

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest, Washington.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays; through Feb. 24.

Admission: Free, but time passes are distributed on Saturdays and Sundays.

Call: (202) 737-4215.

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