Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: James, Seventh Earl of Derby, His Lady and Child
As a young man in Antwerp, the ambitious and talented Anthony van Dyck trained for a career painting epic histories, dramatic myths, and expressive religious scenes.
However, in the early 1630s, the artist’s career took a different path. Settling in London, van Dyck found himself in high demand by a courtly elite who valued portraiture above other genres of painting and were interested in an alternative to the more iconic style of painting that had flourished in England in the past. Van Dyck was quickly named principal painter to the king and queen. In addition to a house and studio, he received the honor of knighthood and a yearly stipend.
In his portraits, van Dyck offered the English royalty and aristocracy not just a sophisticated illusion of forms and textures, but also an image of timeless elegance and almost divine grace. We see all of these elements in the family group shown here. At center is the young daughter of the Earl and Countess of Derby. Her parents stand on either side. To the left, Charlotte de la Trémoille (1599–1664), Countess of Derby, appears dressed in a silvery gown. To the right is her husband, James Stanley, Seventh Earl of Derby (1607–51). With the exception of his white collar and shirt cuff, Stanley is outfitted from head to toe in black. The shimmering satin of the countess’s dress and the soft velvety black cape worn by the earl are so convincing as to invite touch as well as sight.
The status of the figures in the group portrait is expressed not only through the rich garments they wear, but also through their accessories, gestures, and carriage, features that also speak to their less tangible virtues. While the sword hilt visible by the earl’s side proclaims his nobility, the flowers held by the countess suggest her fertility and beauty. Both signs hint at the couple’s adherence to ideal gender roles of the period as does their body language. Mother and daughter both strike poses of modesty and containment, while Stanley—feet apart, upper body twisting, and hand pointing—is given a more active role.
Although it has been suggested that the earl gestures to the Isle of Man, over which the Derby family held sovereignty, the backdrop here is typical of van Dyck portraits. Landscape and background props are, moreover, not the only formulaic aspect of this image. At the cliquish court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, a portrait by van Dyck was a status symbol of sorts. The repetition of poses, fashions, and accoutrements in the artist’s English oeuvre attest to the faddish nature of the portraits he turned out as well as to their efficacy in meeting the needs of their patrons. The voracious demand for van Dyck’s work led him to establish a workshop system that has been likened to a production line. In less than eight years, Anthony van Dyck’s London studio turned out an estimated 400 portraits.
Susan Sidlauskas, Associate Professor of Art History, Rutgers University
“Van Dyck was a very canny, shrewd, highly successful portrait painter, a kind of protégé of Rubens, so he learned much from Rubens in terms of the sensuality of skin tone and the luster of costume. So he was able to invite the leading figures of his day into his studio, and traveled across Europe to paint all kinds of princes, kings, notorious figures of all kinds, authorities, both male and female, mostly men, but also women, because he became famous for portraits of beauties, which was a kind of English tradition. He was able to create representations of figures that were so lustrous that it became the most desirable thing to have your painting done by Van Dyck. Only people of the upper classes could afford fabric like this—first to be imported and then to be fashioned along with fur and lace and all kinds of other accoutrements, including jewels, into costumes of this luster.”
Barnes, Susan, et al. Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of Paintings. London: Paul Mellon Centre, 2003.
Brown, Christopher. Anthony Van Dyck. Rizzoli International, 1999.
Hearn, Karen, ed. Van Dyck in Britain. London: Tate Publishing, 2009.
Piper, David. The English Face, 2nd ed. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2006.
West, Shearer. Portraits. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.