Van Dyck belonged to a generation of artistic giants including Bernini, Velazquez, and Rembrandt who were born at the dawn of the seventeenth century. Like them he gave distinctive and enduring visual form to the societies he knew. These extended from Flanders and Italy to the court of King Charles I in London. His style, a beautiful blend of the grand and the natural, the formal and the intimate, the epic and the personal, made him one of the most sought-after artists in his day and an inspiration for later artists as diverse as Sir Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sargent.
Through a fortuitous coincidence of taste, both Andrew Mellon and P. A. B. Widener enriched their collections of old masters with remarkable paintings by Sir Anthony van Dyck. The aristocratic elegance of this artist’s portraits appealed enormously to the collectors, and they went to great efforts to find the best Van Dycks and to bring them to these shores. Their combined bequests to the National Gallery of Art, which have been added to by significant contributions from the Kress and Whitney collections, have created an extraordinarily rich ensemble of Van Dyck’s works that has long been one of this institution’s greatest sources of pride. It is thus fitting to focus a major international exhibition on this artist, who has had such a tremendous impact on portrait traditions in western Europe and America, as part of our celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the founding of the National Gallery of Art.
As well as celebrating our own anniversary, this major exhibition also commemorates the 350th anniversary of Van Dyck’s untimely death in 1641. The first comprehensive exhibition on this artist to be mounted in many years, it provides an opportunity to see together paintings from all phases of his career, from his first dated work of 1613, when this prodigy was fourteen years old, to his last portraits when he was court artist for King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria in London. Special efforts have been made, moreover, to bring together a large selection of Van Dyck’s religious and mythological scenes. These paintings, often less familiar than the images he created of his distinguished patrons, have a unique sensitivity and poetic character.
Arthur Wheelock wisely recognized that it was time to take a fresh look at Van Dyck’s full career. He invited Susan J. Barnes to join him as co-curator, and together they selected the paintings and produced the catalogue. Indispensable as well has been Julius S. Held, who both advised on the selection and wrote about the oil sketches in the catalogue. We are particularly appreciative of the support and scholarly contribution of the dean of Van Dyck scholars, Sir Oliver Millar, and are deeply grateful for the advice of the members of the Scientific Committee and for the outstanding essays contributed by Christopher Brown, Carol Christensen, Zirka Zaremba Filipczak, Jeffrey Muller, and J. Douglas Stewart.
We thank the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities for granting an indemnity for the exhibition. Finally, we are deeply indebted to our many lenders, whose generous cooperation made this exhibition possible.
J. Carter Brown, Director, National Gallery of Art
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