Sunday, April 3, 2011

Van Dyck’s Little Masterpiece

Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) was so proud of his portrait of Cornelius Van der Geest that he carried it around with him throughout his career as an example of his abilities. He did the painting before he was 20 years old.

The tonal organization is very simple, aided by the soft frontal lighting. The plane of the forehead and the front plane of the nose have the highest tonal value. The cheeks and the rest of the face are slightly darker.

Allowing the forehead to shine as the highest value in a portrait suggests a person with spirituality or intellect. It gives the face a generous, luminous quality.

According to Royal Academy instructor Solomon J. Solomon (writing about a century ago), the painting was made with the following steps*:
1. A brown grisaille, keeping the shadows warm.
2. Loading of stiff white impasto in the forehead and the ruff.
3. When the impasto was completely dry, glazing the skin tones and lips. The glaze sank into the pits around the impastos, making them come forward even more. Translucency like this is almost impossible to achieve with an opaque alla prima handling. 

Note the softness in the eyes:
1. The edges of both the iris and the pupil are soft.
2. The eyelashes and eyebrows are understated. You don’t see individual hairs.
3. The highlights are very carefully placed. On the bottom eyelid, there’s a highlight on the edge of the lid and the moist area where the lid meets the eye.
4. Finish is not a matter of greater detail, but rather of more complete consideration.

Softness takes conscious, deliberate effort, and it’s often the mark of greatness. 

According to British academic master Solomon J. Solomon, “there is more to be learnt in the painting of flesh from this picture than from almost any other I know, so luminous is this masterpiece.”

The painting is 14.75 x 12.75 inches. It is at the National Gallery, London. Their website lets you zoom into it.
* ADDENDUM. Note: a friend of the blog, who knows a lot more than I do about historical painting methods, sent me the following clarification, based on his research:

"I've one disagreement though. Your step by step list says that he did a brown grisaille, upon which he impastoed with plain white. Then, on top of the dry impasto he glazed down.

Generally, the evidence does not seem to support that as his usual procedure. Both the NG (London) Technical Bulletin #20 and the catalog from the 1990 exhibition in Washington (NG) show flesh cross sections which contain other pigments in addition to lead white, within the lead white layer.

Contemporary writings, written by those who purport to have known van Dyck also do not mention a brown grisaille followed by a white system as you have described. All list a dead color layer followed by a carnation color layer."  
Thanks for the insight!
Previously on GJ: Eye Highlights
Wikipedia on Anthony Van Dyck
National Gallery website
Muddy Colors” blog post on eyes.


EZ Goodnight said...

Love reading these posts. It makes me feel like I'm back in college, listening to my professors again.

Sakievich said...

Here's a couple hi-res versions put together in photoshop from one of those annoying flash zoom websites.(screenshots and aligning and merging). I'll leave it in my dropbox for a couple weeks so you can download it. I think he didn't bother painting the rest of it because he didn't want to jinx the magic already evident though that would have been a very fine hand had he gone beyond the thumb...

Erik Bongers said...

Of the two famous Antwerp painters, I'm generally more fond of Rubens, but this indeed a little masterpiece.

Paul Foxton said...

Nice choice to write about Jim, this is one of my favourite paintings in the National. It doesn't seem to matter how often I go back to see it, the magic never wanes.

Those bright dots in the inside corners of the eyes stand really proud of the surface, little hard blobs. When the light comes from above, they stand right out making the value higher. They work just like the real thing does, they're sculpture really. Astounding painting.

jeckert55 said...

I really like this post. I like how he made swirling rhythms in the paint that circle the right (our right) eye. Every brush stroke put down contributes to the counterclockwise movement. You can see that the strokes go counterclockwise because each stroke begins with a hard edge and tapers off into a soft edge. Wow!

Rembrandt achieved the same effect in his faces.

Also, just as Copernicus would use a calculator if he were alive today, Van Dyck would have used cadmium red and alizarin permanent had they been available to him at that time. I say this because I anticipate that some purists will eschew some of our finest colors just because the masters did not use the colors, and that would be a shame.

Anonymous said...

Before Van Dyck was 20?! That's nothing; Rebecca Black is only 13!!!


DavidStill said...

As much as I don't believe in talent being the only factor for artistic success, quite a few of the masters were nothing less than prodigious. Of course, beaching a pupil of Rubens doesn't hurt.

Roberto said...

This really is a gorgeous masterpiece! The thick and expressive brushwork overall , and the textured impasto (under the ruff, and the forehead), seem to have been overglazed with several different colors/values in different areas to enhance the textures and the sculpted forms of the paint.
The Lighter areas of the ruff and the textures on the broad planes of the face have a softer, delicate tone, possibly a raw-umber (with its relative warm/greenish tone would work well against the brown grisaille underpainting).
What really impresses me about this painting is that the pits and textures of the flesh actually give the appearance of skin pores! This may be just the result of a masterly laying down of thick paint, but it seems too precise to me with its ‘lost and found’ quality that actually adds form to the masses, I wonder if he didn’t actually selectively ‘stipple’ the surface of his wet ‘alla prima’ layer in preparation for the later over-glazing? At any rate this is truly an amazing effect!
The darker areas of the ruff and the face, and the outer edges of the forms that turn away into darkness seem to have a darker value to the glaze, possibly a burnt umber. This darker value is most evident in the shadows of the eyes and especially around the highlights in the lower lids. Those highlights are particular amazing. The thick white paint is not just dabbed onto the rendered form, each highlight is surrounded by a darker value (glaze medium?), which itself was placed over the rosy tints of the painted forms.
Thanx to ‘Sakievich’ for the high rez images.
@'jeckert55': I’m sure Leonardo would be into Cinema (probably even animation!), and Caravaggio would have used lenses,(as in a projector ];)
Thanks for posting this, Jim. What a fun Journey! -RQ

Harrison said...

Great portrait by a Master.