National Gallery show brings out qualities often overlooked


January 06, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

WASHINGTON — Washington

Baltimoreans who know their museum collections will find an old friend virtually enthroned in glory in Washington these days. Proceeding through the "Anthony Van Dyck" exhibition at the National Gallery (through Feb. 24), one turns at a certain point and sees at the end of a three-gallery-long vista the grand, the glorious "Rinaldo and Armida" from the Epstein collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Painted for Charles I of England in 1629, one of the works that persuaded the king to invite Van Dyck to England as his court painter, "Rinaldo and Armida" is the centerpiece of this exhibit of more than 100 works. And so it should be. Not only does it stand at about the chronological center of the creative period of the artist's short life (he died in 1641 at the age of 42), it sums up so much of his art.

Taken from the epic poem "Jerusalem Liberated," by Torquato Tasso (1581), it depicts a moment of high drama and emotion. The crusader Rinaldo has been lulled to sleep by the song of a water nymph so that the sorceress Armida can kill him. But she, gazing into his face, falls instantly in love.

Van Dyck has portrayed this moment with all the powers at his command. The sweep of drapery that occupies the center of the painting recalls similar passages of grandeur in other works and also conveys the tension of the moment -- the most dramatic of the story, for Van Dyck has chosen to depict its turning point.

The richness of color -- blue, red and gold -- and the glint of light on armor are characteristics one sees throughout Van Dyck's work. The tenderness of Armida's gaze indicates his ability to capture a hint -- and just a hint -- of something deeper beneath the magnificence of courtly splendor.

Moreover, the show's accompanying catalog points out that the overall sensuousness of the image as well as certain specific references in a water nymph and in a Cupid are owed to Titian. And Titian appears throughout the catalog as, along with Rubens, one of the principal formative influences on Van Dyck.

Anthony Van Dyck is perhaps not as well known as he should be, as he certainly will be to all those who see this exhibit. The Flemish master, born in 1599, became Rubens' chief assistant in his teens, appeared briefly at the court of James I of England in the early 1620s, and spent several years in Italy learning the lessons of such masters as Titian, Veronese and Guido Reni. But he is probably principally known for his portraits of English royalty and aristocracy while he was court painter to Charles I in the 1630s.

In fact, he has often been regarded as a pale follower of Rubens, more interested in mere portraits than in Rubens' sort of historical and allegorical dramas that were at least traditionally considered a higher form of art.

It is the purpose of this exhibit, on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of Van Dyck's death, to dispel what its organizers and the catalog's essays view as misconceptions about the artist. It is their contention that Van Dyck was indeed more than a follower: His art was his own synthesis of Rubens and the Venetian masters, particularly Titian; his religious and mythological paintings, such as "Rinaldo and Armida" or "The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine," are less sculptural than Rubens', softer and more sensuous; his portraits are not simply idealized facades but succeed at least at times in reflecting the more human qualities of their sitters; and he had a major influence on later portraitists, especially those of 18th century England including Gainsborough and Reynolds.

That "Anthony Van Dyck" taken as a whole -- catalog as well as show -- only partly succeeds in convincing us of all that is certainly not the fault of those who assembled the works. Unlike the National Gallery's concurrent "Titian" exhibit, which contains fewer works to reflect a career about three times as long, we do not in any way have a sense that Van Dyck is only partially represented here.

His entire career is laid before us, from "An Elderly Man" of 1613, probably his earliest painting, through the triumphs of the late 1620s and 1630s ("Rinaldo and Armida," "Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson" of 1633, "Cupid and Psyche" of 1639-1640).

If the portraits are the most numerous works, the religious and mythological paintings amply appear as well. Earlier ones include

"The Martyrdom of Saint Peter" (about 1616) in his early, "rough" style, and the affecting "Saint Sebastian Bound for Martyrdom" (1620 or 1621), the softness of the saint's flesh bespeaking his vulnerability.

Later one finds "Vertumnus and Pomona" (1625), suffused with a crepuscular glow, and the final lyricism of "Cupid and Psyche," which Oliver Millar in the catalog rightly calls "exquisite" and "a final tribute to Titian and Veronese."

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