Anthony Van Dyck's painting has tended to suffer from two particularly powerful assumptions. Firstly, that he never escaped the shadow of his great mentor Rubens, and secondly that his work slavishly glorified the ultimately doomed reign of the Stuart King Charles I. Robin Blake's meticulous biography of the Dutch painter, Anthony Van Dyck--A Life
goes a long way towards questioning these assumptions about Van Dyck, offering instead a much more complex and sympathetic portrait of his life and work.
Part of the challenge of Blake's biography lies in his admission that Van Dyck "is astonishingly elusive. Like Shakespeare, Van Dyck was greatly celebrated in his time, yet gaps in what we know are like chasms". The result is a great deal of painstaking and detailed local colour, including Van Dyck's early years in Antwerp, his apprenticeship to Rubens, the first mysterious sojourn to England, and subsequent trips to the artistic Holy Grail of Italy. Despite Blake's admirable attempts to offer a more comprehensive, European perspective on Van Dyck, the best sections of the book come in its last hundred pages, which examine Van Dyck's triumphant return to London in 1632, his magnificent paintings of the Stuart court and his extraordinary relationship with Charles I. Blake vividly captures Van Dyck's opulent and prestigious position in the midst of the intrigues of Stuart court society, offering suggestive readings of many of Van Dyck's late portraits and religious works. However, as Blake suggests from the outset, Van Dyck the man tends to get lost in the midst of his prolific output, hidden behind the canvas, just out of view of the grasp of even the most tenacious biographer. Nevertheless, for those interested in Van Dyck, Robin Blake's study is set to become the definitive biography in English for some time to come. --Jerry Brotton
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A lively biography...a highly personal account, which makes up for the sparseness of the written record...well told.--Theodore K. Rabb, "Times Literary Supplement"
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