Art review: Van Dyck: Court Painter at the Galleria Sabauda, Turin

21 December 2018

Nicholas Cranfield went to Turin to visit the exhibition of Van Dycks

Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali – Torino, Musei Reali-Galleria Sabauda

The Holy Family with St |John and St Anne by Anthony Van Dyck, in the current exhibition in Turin

The Holy Family with St |John and St Anne by Anthony Van Dyck, in the current exhibition in Turin

ANTHONY VAN DYCK, haplessly entitled “Van Dick”, as the Italians pronounce his surname, on the first storyboard, was born in Antwerp in spring 1599. In the same year, the Habsburg Archdukes Isabella and Albert entered the war-ravaged port with its surviving population of some 55,000.

In 1641, a week after the birth of his only legitimate child, a daughter Justiniana, Van Dyck died in London on 9 December; he was buried, on the day of her baptism, in St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the last Roman Catholics to be accorded that honour, at the behest of Charles I.

His status as an honorary Englishman was confirmed when Charles knighted him and appointed him as “principalle Paynter in Ordinary to their Majesties” in July 1632. He was given a working studio outside the City, in a riverside house at Blackfriars, and a suite of rooms in Eltham Palace.

Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali – Torino, Musei Reali-Galleria SabaudaThe Three Eldest Children of Charles I by Van Dyck, 1632

His father and grandfather were well-to-do silk merchants, but, by 1615, the family had run into financial difficulties by when Van Dyck had long moved out, first (aged just ten) to become a student of the successful painter Hendrik van Balen and then, around 1615, to enter the workshop of the German-born Rubens.

The Savoyard art collection has recently been installed in the garden wing of the Palazzo Reale, and this exhibition grandly occupies the ground floor. It is centred on that collection, and neatly complements this year’s summer show in Genoa of “Van Dyck and his Flemish Friends 1600-1640”.

The first room is given over to works by his pupil-master Rubens, and includes just one work by the teenager Van Dyck, in which a very naked sleeping Antiope is taken advantage of by the lecherous Jove. The model is the woman whom Rubens celebrated as a Susannah put upon by the Elders, in the opposite painting.

It is one of Van Dyck’s few classical compositions; other pagan subjects that appear here are Vertumnus and Pomona, Amaryllis and Mirtillo, and Thetis at the Forge of Vulcan.

Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali Torino, Musei Reali-Galleria SabaudaPrince Tommasso of Savoy-Carignano, 1635

Aged just 20, the precocious Van Dyck crossed the Channel and could be found working in London for the Villiers family and the Earl of Arundel. In February 1621, James VI and I paid him £100, for a “speciall service” that remains unexplained but may have had to do with marriage plans for the Prince of Wales.

It was a considerable advance; years later, in 1632, he was paid the same amount for the canvas depicting the Three Elder Children of Charles I; the Sabauda version slightly predates that still in the Royal Collection, in which James, Duke of York, anxiously tugs his brother’s hand.

James VI granted him an eight-month leave of absence, which allowed him to return to Flanders before setting out on horseback for Italy on 30 October 1621. He stayed, first, with the Flemish community in Genoa, as a house guest of the artist-dealer Cornelis de Wael and his brother Lucas, whose hospitality he celebrated in a famous double portrait that has come from the Capitoline Museum but has seen too much Roman sun to be in good condition.

In Genoa, Van Dyck saw any number of Rubens portraits of the republican city’s merchant aristocrats, whose Ligurian families occupied the palaces on the Strada Nuova. The 1606 equestrian portrait of Giovanni Carlo Doria (Palazzo Spinola) becomes an obvious model for Van Dyck’s own painting of Anton Giulio Brignole-Sale a generation later.

He journeyed to Rome, where he never quite gained an entrée to the papal court despite painting, on a second visit, his spectacularly ingratiating portrait of the former papal nuncio Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio (Uffizi), who sits enfolded in carmine red with a waterfall of white lace cascading over his knees (Uffizi).

He had reached Palermo — no doubt hopeful of a commission from the Viceroy, Emanuele Filiberto, whose Dulwich portrait is next to a posthumous marble bust, said to be by Giovanni Tommaso Carlone — where he was forced to stay after the outbreak of a plague that killed off the young viceroy.

In the six years while he lived in Italy, much of it recorded in his famous sketchbook (Chatsworth, now British Museum), he visited Venice, Florence, Milan, Bologna, and Mantua; but it was in the Sinjoor community of Genoa that he most felt at home.

Restored and substantially overpainted for this exhibition, Caterina Balbi Durazzo (c.1624, Genoa, Palazzo Reale, formerly Balbi) stands reunited with her husband Marcello, a thunderous full-length portrait sent from the Ca d’Oro in Venice. Both portraits had hung in separate rooms at the time of the 1684 French siege of Genoa, and Caterina Balbi suffered the most.

Musei di Strada Nuova, GenovaVan Dyck, Portrait of Anton Giulio Brignole-Sale, 1621-25

The double commission marked their marriage and was paid for by the groom’s father, Agostino Durazzo (1555-1630), who, in the same year, paid for the Holy Family with St John and St Anne (Sabauda), to celebrate his enoblement as Marquis of Montferrato. The 18th-century extension of the canvas ruins the proportions of this otherwise outstanding devotional piece.

After four years in Antwerp and a visit to the Stuart court in exile in the Hague, Van Dyck returned in the summer of 1632 to London, where, notwithstanding trips home (1634-35) and to Paris (1640), he made his home alongside the court that we see portrayed here.

Van Dyck’s strength, not mentioned in the catalogue, was his ability to deliver an image that the sitter wished to be true, or that he could sell to the sitter. Famously, he concealed Queen Henrietta Maria’s protruding eye teeth that one of her nieces had once recalled as like battleship guns.


Despite the rhetoric of the image, the 2nd Earl of Warwick, Robert Rich (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), a leading figure among the Essex Puritans, was not yet a naval commander; he was, indeed, only appointed commander of the Parliamentary fleet after Van Dyck died.

In the 1630s, when Van Dyck painted him, he was involved in a series of less-than-successful colonial ventures in America, and had been forced to resign from the presidency of the New England Company. The naval engagement going on behind him as he stands suavely on the strand is pure fiction.

Katherine Wootton, Lady Stanhope and later Countess of Chesterfield (private collection), was governess and later confidante of the Princess Mary whose double betrothal portrait with William II of Orange is one of the last that Van Dyck painted, and concludes the show with haunting optimism. The sweep of Lady Stanhope’s hat suggests that she has just come in from the deer park below Croom’s Hill in Greenwich.

At least the silk merchant’s son never saw his adopted country torn to tatters by Civil War.

“Van Dyck: Court Painter” is at the Galleria Sabauda, Palazzo Reale, Turin, until 17 March 2019. Phone 00 39 011024301.

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