The London Times
Anthony Van Dyckby Robin Blake
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Blake, an author living in London, explains that the impetus for this biography of the great Dutch painter came from his own connection in childhood to a painting purchased by his grandmother
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View of Antwerp
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The Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels has a time-freckled pen sketch, no bigger than a page of this book, showing a distant view of Antoon Van Dyck's birthplace. To the right of the drawing, which was signed and dated to the year 1632, Antwerp's great showpiece buildings crowd together in front of a busy waterfront, dominated by the upward thrust of one of Europe's most assertive and intriguing cathedral towers. The artist notices how the shapes of the various spires, along with the walls' conical turrets and the triangular gable windows which jut from the pitched roofs of the houses, are complemented by the rigging and sails of the boats moving in and out, riding at their moorings or lying along the wharves below. As the eye moves leftwards from this dense entanglement of architecture and shipping, the image becomes simpler. The leaner, lower proportions of the St Walburgiskerk spire are delineated, then the waterside fortifications and wharfside warehouses and the curious, chunky outline of the Steen prison. Then, passing under a suggestion of distant woods, the land tapers into water and here, on the extreme left of the design, a heavily freighted wherry is steered towards the harbour.
This is Van Dyck's only known sketch of his native place. Done on grey paper, in sepia ink and with a strong, swift pen, it is an attentive and confident piece of landscape drawing done by an artist at the height of his considerable powers.
Antoon Van Dyck was to move around Europe meetingand painting most of the great men and women of his times. All were players in the intricate game of international politics at the start of the seventeenth century. It is as well, therefore, to begin by considering the Antwerper's hereditary perspective on the riven continent which stretched beyond his native city's walls.
Antwerp, abutting the left bank of the river Scheldt, a few sea miles upriver from the archipelago of Zeeland and, beyond this, the shipping lanes of the North Sea, was in 1599, the year of the artist's birth, a city considerably embarrassed. Like a millionaire financier whose interests have taken a tumble in the markets, the city council's prime object was at this time to regain its financial pre-eminence in Europe, yet much of the enterprise and cash needed to achieve the object was spent keeping up appearances. Though landward communications to the south and east remained open to the rich trade of Flanders, France and Germany, the city's access to the Baltic, Britain, Spain, the Mediterranean and the New World was under systematic blockade by her enemies. It was a city being slowly squeezed.
In living memory this had once been the richest and most populous Netherlandish city and, in all Northern Europe, it rated second only to Paris. At its height, there were more than 100,000 residents, of which 16,000 were members of a polyglot foreign community. Caribbean sugar, oriental spices, South American gold and silver, Flemish cloth, German wine, English tin and textiles, Baltic grain and timber all passed across its wharves and were traded on its bourse.
The city had been able to take full advantage of the fact that Spain, overlord of the Netherlands since they had fallen into her hands as part of the complex Habsburg inheritance in the mid-sixteenth century, had been opening up the New World while the Portuguese merchant fleet was successfully working the Eastern sea route, round the Cape to East Africa, Arabia, India and beyond the Malay archipelago. Antwerp became the ideal crossing point between these trades on the one hand and the French, British and Baltic coasts, as well as the inland routes which led into heart of affluent Northern Europe, on the other. The financial risks in these ventures were considerable, but more so were the potential profits. The de la Faille family, several of whose members would eventually commission portraits by Van Dyck, reckoned on an increase in price of 100 per cent for their dealings with Seville, but even this was small change compared to the more long-range enterprises. In the early days of the India trade, returns of 6000 per cent had been chalked up.
The enormous volume of goods traded, the unrivalled experience of shipment and the novel ability to raise and use the bill of exchange as a method of credit as well as a token of repayment, meant that these merchants and bankers Europe's nascent capitalists were of inestimable use to princes across the continent. Financiers active in the southern Netherlands such as the Fuggers, a German firm but with their largest branch in Antwerp, and the Balbi and Grimaldi of Genoa, crucial future clients of Van Dyck, were essential to the growth of deficit financing by European governments. Their activities forced the banking and the political systems, the trade-cycles and the activities of government, into a relationship of close mutual dependency. The great commodity merchants, dealing in timber, cloth, leather and grain were equally central to the movement, supply and payment of the princes' mercenary armies, those most important instruments of power politics in early modern Europe. So the markets and counting-houses of Antwerp, pure bourgeois territory though they were, could no longer be considered in any sense apart from the concerns of the princes, their courts and their incessant adventuring.
For forty years, during the lifetimes of Van Dyck's grandparents and parents, Antwerp had suffered a continual buffeting from the turbulent economic and political struggles of a continent dominated by France and Spain. On the one hand, notions of European federalism, held together by hierarchical systems of fealty and allegiance, still survived from feudal times: monarchy and authority were held to be, if not rule by consent, then at least to an extent conditional on popular support. On the other hand, there were powerful new concepts of absolute monarchy, direct and centralised, at the head of either a state (France, England) or an empire (Spain, the Holy Roman Empire) and accountable to no one except God. In the religious and ideological sphere, the overlapping conflict between Catholic and Protestant continued, impinging remorselessly on life in the Netherlands. In the late 1560s Philip II, disliking the looseness of his Netherlandish provinces, had tried to tighten their administration. The provinces objected, then rebelled, and Philip discovered himself on the verge of being turfed out of those flatlands, with their propensity for nonconformism, that had been a personal gift to him from his father Charles V. Increasingly, holding on to this inheritance became a matter of filial duty although there was also the economic consideration these were enviably prosperous lands, even though the great king himself found them personally uncongenial.
Almost as soon as the rebellion began, the grounds of the argument started to shift. Spanish Counter-Reformation Catholicism its trials, tortures, beatings and burnings outraged the instinctive and sophisticated tolerance of the Netherlandish peoples. As a result, Calvinism, which had originated in Geneva, gained ground throughout the Province. It was signalled by ferocious outbreaks of tension-releasing iconoclasm and fuelled not only by nationalistic and religious passions but by an increase in hunger and hard times felt by the region's cloth and other workers. Antwerp felt the full impact of these forces in 1566, when the interiors of the cathedral and four other churches were savagely gutted by a Protestant mob.
The Duke of Alva, with an army of mercenaries, was now posted to the Netherlands to enforce Spanish rule and his violent repression turned inchoate resistance into a full-scale war of liberation. Antwerp, the junction of so many world trade routes, was astride the front line of this savage war. The smashing of statues, paintings and pictorial windows in the city in the 1560s, and its subsequent fifteen-year defiance of Spanish power, led in 1576 to the vicious backlash known as the `Spanish Fury'. The city was attacked and systematically looted by the Spanish garrison of its own citadel and, for three days, the fat and wealthy citizens were brutalised and held for ransom, their women and children were beaten, raped and killed and their property whatever remained unappropriated was burned or broken.
Grisly, graphically illustrated contemporary accounts of the episode became, in Simon Schama's phrase, `a patriotic scripture' for the nascent Protestant state of Holland but more immediately the `Spanish Fury' merely confirmed Antwerp's Calvinism, which now endured for another eighteen years. But, after a determined siege in 1593, the city was again taken by the Catholic forces of Spain and at this point the whole conflict stabilised, with Spain controlling ten southern provinces and the rebels keeping their grip on seven in the north. A dramatic exchange of population followed with a high proportion of the Antwerp merchant class, and most of the foreign residents, moving away, particularly to Protestant Amsterdam. The city's population was reduced by almost a half and was further weakened by the permanent blockade of the navies of Holland and Zeeland. As a consequence, the vast bulk of Antwerp's old trade was diverted directly to Amsterdam. In the Flemish countryside, coping with rampaging mercenary armies, the attentions of the Inquisition and the sudden decline of trade, depopulation was even more disastrous than in the town. The result in the 1590s was the almost total ruin of Antwerp's neighbouring provinces of Flanders and Brabant. Recovery was never to be more than partial.
These events bear greatly on our understanding of Anthony Van Dyck's antecedents. The little that we know of the history of the Van Dyck family in the sixteenth century goes back to 1529, when Anthonij Van Dyck the grandfather after whom the painter himself was to be christened is recorded as having entered the world. Over the next seventy years the ups and downs of the family can be traced through a series of all-too occasional documents in the city archive. But, however sparse the record, the family's vicissitudes always faithfully reflect the fluctuating fortunes of the city itself.
Following Anthonij Van Dyck's birth, the next documentary appearance of his name comes in the membership book kept by the Guild of St Luke, the painters' company, where one Tuenken Van Dyck, a painter and former pupil of the painter Jan van Cleve, is inscribed as a Guild member in 1546. This recently discovered document comes as a surprise. All previous biographers have stated that Van Dyck's paternal family had no artistic connections. Lionel Cust is typical. In 1900 he wrote that `there is nothing known of his antecedents to suggest a hereditary tendency to art'. Eighty-two years later Christopher Brown's position was that `there was nothing in his father's family background to suggest that young Anthony would make a career in art'.
So how do we now know that this Tuenken Van Dyck is not merely a member of the artist Van Dyck's family, but actually his grandfather Anthonij the Elder? We have Katlijne van der Stighelen to thank for the publication of a document from the city archives, dated 30 September 1563, which seems to put the identity of Tuenken Van Dyck beyond reasonable doubt.
It is a kind of affidavit, recording the effort of Agatha van Yselsteyn, the widow of Jan van Ghendrick alias van Cleve, to establish her title as a master painter's widow. Agatha brings forward witnesses to attest the fact that her husband was the same Jan van Cleve who had been a Master of the Guild two decades earlier. There seems to have been a dispute over Agatha's citizenship, perhaps complicated by her late husband's use of two names. His widow brought forward witnesses prepared to back up her assertion that her husband had been a citizen `since no one can be a member of the guild without such citizenship'. One of these witnesses is thirty-three-year-old Anthonij Van Dyck, `at one time painter and a citizen of this town' and who `knew the aforementioned Jan van Ghendrick alias van Cleve over some ... twenty-three years ago as a painter and master'. The dates accord with the idea that Anthonij the Elder had indeed been van Cleve's former pupil the same `Tuenken van Dyck' who finished his apprenticeship with van Cleve in 1546 when he was aged seventeen.
The identity of the pupil master van Ghendrick/Cleve is uncertain. Two families of painters called van Cleve were active in Antwerp during the sixteenth century and he presumably came from one of these most likely the one descended from a Hendrick van Cleve, who had registered with the Guild in 1489-90. A second Hendrick van Cleve appears in the records in 1533, perhaps the grandson of Hendrick the Elder and this second Hendrick is the most likely of the known van Cleves to be the `Jan van Ghendrick alias van Cleve' who taught Anthonij `Tuenken' Van Dyck up to 1546 and who was dead by 1563. Nothing is known of the life and work of Hendrick van Cleve the Younger, but his widow's legal problems do suggest he lived an irregular life. It is an intriguing possibility that he is `the Foolish clef' by whom Peter Paul Rubens would later own a landscape, a Judgement of Paris and an Emmaus.
We know little more about what kind of artist Anthonij Van Dyck the Elder was. There is an old, but long-discredited story that the younger Van Dyck's father Frans was a migrant from Holland and a painter on glass before turning to the more profitable cloth trade in Antwerp. It is possible that this tradition slipped a generation or two in transmission and it was the grandfather, or conceivably the great-grandfather (who might easily have been a Hollander) rather than the father, who painted pious scenes on window panes in enamelled colours, an art that had peaked a century earlier but had grown increasingly obsolescent throughout the sixteenth century. Its productions suffered disproportionately from the stones and hammers of the iconoclasts and, if any of Van Dyck's forebears practised it, none of their works is known to have survived. We are left with the bare facts, garnered from Agatha van Yselsteyn's affidavit, that Van Dyck's grandfather had become an apprentice at the age of seventeen, a master painter in 1556 but already, by 1563, a former master.
His next entry in the archive comes in 1568, when Anthonij Van Dyck the Elder is living at a house called Hercules in Antwerp's Mansstraat a street close to the south side of the Grote Markt and hard by the Cathedral of Our Lady. He is described as a creemere, a salesman or small shopkeeper dealing in silks and writing materials. The document seems to suggest that he was an itinerant salesman, since he is said to be `travelling around'. His choice of merchandise may seem ill-assorted. More than likely Van Dyck the Elder set up in business originally to sell writing and drawing materials of his own manufacture. Van Cleve would have taught him how to make good-quality quills and reed pens and, if he could not use them profitably himself, then he could at least sell them at a profit. The silk may have come in as a sideline which eventually took over the bulk of the trade. It is clear that Frans, his son, was never to be anything but a cloth merchant.
The 1568 document records an attempt to alleviate a nasty problem afflicting the Van Dyck family, though it was one which they undoubtedly shared with a high proportion of the 13,000 households in Antwerp. At Hercules, an unspecified number of the garrison had been foisted on them by Alva's billeting officer. Driven to distraction by these unwelcome guests Van Dyck wrote to the city council insisting that `the houses in this small street, as you well know, are very small and narrow and not at all suitable to accommodate soldiery'. Furthermore, these soldiers were a `considerable burden' and costing him a lot of money. He therefore pleaded for the billeting order to be lifted and the soldiers removed elsewhere.
The troops' arrival in the city the previous year had raised mixed feelings. Iconoclastic rioting had aroused strong fears among Catholics, commerce was in disarray and it would be something if Alva could at least restore order. But Alva soon found his stock of goodwill diminishing. He forced Antwerp to pay for the building of a citadel on the city's southern flank, to the tune of not less than fourteen barrels of gold a five-year project and a huge sum to find at a time of commercial slump.
These discontents can all be seen between the lines of this petition by Anthonij Van Dyck, angry and frustrated at the interminable presence of oafish, big-booted, beer-swilling, and above all foreign enforced guests within his doors. Any householder would feel the same, but how much more of an irritant it must have been to a people just discovering the benefits of domestic autonomy, cleanliness and calm. In the north, these discoveries were soon to be upheld not merely as virtues, but as the stanchions of an entire culture. But also in Antwerp, at this time and even among Catholics, there was a yearning for:
A fitting, fair and clean habitation, A fragrant garden, fruit, good vineyards too, One's household modest and one's children few, One's wife faithful in act and inclination.
However we do not know how Van Dyck's plea for the return of his own placid domesticity was answered.
Only a year later we read of him again in a further archive document. Although still described as a small-time creemere, he clearly feels he is creeping up in the world, as he now styles himself, with a touch of self-aggrandisement, `Anthuenis Van Dyck'. The document is a simple character reference, proffered by him together with the painter Hans Lambrechts, on behalf of Pieter Pruystinck who, they are prepared to swear, is a good man in every conceivable way in his standing, speech, character and reputation (een man van goeden leven, conversatien, name ende fame). This exhibit (the details of the legal suit of which it forms part are unknown) is merely a piece of clannish solidarity since the Van Dycks and the Pruystincks were closely entwined: Pieter's sister Cornelia was Anthonij's wife while his other sister Elizabeth was married to Anthonij's brother Peter. It is indeed quite possible that Van Dyck was in business in some way with the Pruystincks Cornelia was herself a shrewd enough businesswoman, as we shall see but the most notable thing about the Pieter Pruystinck testimonial is the co-signatory, the painter Lambrechts. Their partnership in this oath shows that Anthonij Van Dyck the Elder did not regard himself as too grand to keep in close touch with the members of his former profession.
The next ten years witnessed intense civic difficulty in Antwerp. The Protestant uprising, aided by the fleet of privateers known as `Sea Beggars' and some diversionary attacks from the French in the south, had much success in the northern provinces. Alva left for ever in 1573 but the worst of his legacy to Antwerp the `Spanish Fury' was still to come. It was after that outrage, when the city, for the time being, had fallen under Protestant control and transformed itself into `the capital of the rebellion' that Anthonij Van Dyck found himself able to afford a new house, Dan Berendans, standing on the Grote Markt itself in front of the new Town Hall. It is interesting that he chose such a parlous moment to invest in a larger residence. The area was certainly prestigious but many of the Grote Markt houses had, with the Old Town Hall, been gutted only three years before, while others had been disposed of by emigrants. It was, in other words, a buyer's market and Anthonij was shrewd enough to take advantage. Perhaps, too, he was feeling the down-draught from time's winged chariot. He was now fifty and must have congratulated himself for being so long-lived, and latterly even prosperous, in those adverse times. But if his move to more spacious premises was an overdue reward, it was one that he would enjoy for only a short time after his family and chattels moved in. Within two years, by 1581, Anthonij Van Dyck the Elder died.
By this time the brief lifespan of Protestant Antwerp had itself only a little longer to run. Three years after the death of Anthonij Van Dyck the Elder, and fourteen before the birth of his painter grandson, the commander of the Spanish forces Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, set his mind to reconquest and, after a fourteen-month siege, the city fell at last into his hands. It was the middle of the night in Madrid when Philip II received Parma's dispatch. The king was a habitual burner of midnight oil, and now he hurried from his study to the bedroom door of his favourite daughter, Isabella. He rapped loudly to awaken her, then called out the news: `Daughter, Antwerp is ours!'
So it was in a Catholic and Spanish city, in his grandfather's old house, on the market square and in the shadow of its cathedral, that Antoon Van Dyck was born on 22 March 1599. There was nothing left now of Calvinism in Antwerp life and the atmosphere in which he would grow up was suffused instead by the resurgent spirit of the Counter-Reformation.
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