The National Portrait Gallery is trying to drum up millions to buy a Van Dyck self-portrait. So why is this Belgian artist so important to British art history?
£12.5m for a self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck? That's what the National Portrait Gallery and the Art Fund are trying to raise in an appeal launched today. Is it worth it?
Absolutely. I think this is one of the most worthwhile campaigns in years to "save" a work of art for the nation. Van Dyck's Self-Portrait would make a spectacular addition to the National Portrait Gallery. Quite frankly, it could make the place. It would give a gallery stuffed with pictures of primarily historical interest a true artistic masterpiece, by the man from Antwerp who gave birth to British art.
Van Dyck was fascinated by the English face. His paintings are full of pale faces, with quirky physiognomies and flaccid skin – the faces of the English upper class in the reign of Charles I. You can see how intrigued he was by this northern island just by looking at his portrait of the art collector George Gage doing business in Italy. Van Dyck shows this elegant art lover as a quintessential Englishman abroad, his long white hands and face looking raw and even sickly in the light of Rome.
Charles I ruled over an art-loving court and Van Dyck, a painter who could and did work all over Europe, came to Britain to get paid for portraits. His images of Stuart ladies and gentlemen have immense panache and cavalier style. They are at once real and down to earth – those pasty faces – yet magnificent in their silken garments and rich settings.
When British art took off in the 18th century, it was Van Dyck that artists like Gainsborough looked back to as the father of British painting –Gainsborough's painting The Blue Boy is his tribute to his art hero.
The painting the National Portrait Gallery wants to buy is the last known self-portrait by Van Dyck. He was very conscious of his talent – this portrait shows it. He stands sideways to the mirror he is looking at while he paints, and turns his head lightly towards it in a nonchalant, aristocratic pose.
Yet his world was falling apart. This was painted in 1640 to 1641 as Britain descended into a civil war that would leave many of Van Dyck's subjects and patrons, including Charles I, dead.
Meanwhile, Van Dyck himself had died by December 1641. The king said – as praise – that he spent all his money living "more like a prince than a painter".
Van Dyck was Britain's first art star. For once, a campaign to save a painting is not just hype. This gifted Flemish student of the English face belongs in this country, at the National Portrait Gallery, among all those people whose bad skin and bad teeth and cockeyed smiles he had such a good eye for.
National Portrait Gallery launches campaign to keep Van Dyck in UK
Poet Andrew Motion and artist Gillian Wearing back NPG's fundraising effort to buy £12.5m self-portrait of Flemish painter
Monday 25 November 2013
A £12.5m fundraising campaign to buy for the nation a work that ranks as one of the finest of all self-portraits has been launched by the National Portrait Gallery in London.
The Van Dyck portrait, painted a year before he died in 1641, will leave the UK for an anonymous private collection unless the money is raised.
The largest fundraising campaign for a work of art the gallery has undertaken is a reflection of the work's importance, said the NPG director Sandy Nairne. "Yes it's a large sum but we are not daunted. We feel this is absolutely the right thing to do."
He said the self-portrait was up there with the best and no other painter had had such a dramatic impact on British portraiture as Anthony van Dyck. "He decisively turned it away from the stiff formal approach of Tudor and Jacobean painting developing a distinctive fluid, painterly style that was to dominate portraiture well into the 20th century," Nairne said.
This self-portrait shows the artist brimming with confidence and is all the more poignant given his death, at 42, so soon after he painted it.
The poet Sir Andrew Motion said it was a "beautiful and extraordinary" painting that should belong to everybody. "It is a picture that belongs to all of us because it is about something that all of us feel and worry about," he said.
The artist Gillian Wearing is also supporting the campaign. She said: "This is a fantastic and evocative Van Dyck self-portrait painting that would enrich our whole culture if it can be made available to the public."
A total of £1.2m has already been raised including a grant of £500,000 from the charity the Art Fund and £700,000 from the NPG's own portrait fund.
But the clock is ticking. The arts minister Ed Vaizey has placed on an export bar on the painting which gives the NPG three months to demonstrate a serious ability to raise the funds. If it does then the timescale will be extended.
It is a painting that has rarely been seen in public, part of the earl of Jersey's family collection for nearly 400 years. The NPG tried to buy it when it came up for auction in 2009 and it was instead bought by the London dealer Philip Mould and the US dealer Alfred Bader for £8.3m. They now have a £12.5m foreign buyer – hence the reason for the export bar.
The work, now on display at the NPG, is one of only three self-portraits Van Dyck painted while in Britain. One is in the Prado museum in Madrid and the other is owned by the duke of Westminster.
Van Dyck may have been Flemish but he was at the centre of English court life, invited to the country by his greatest patron, Charles I, in 1632. The artist was rewarded with a knighthood and the title of principal painter and made London his home until his death.