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Anthony van Dyck, Charles I at the Hunt

Anthony van Dyck, Charles I at the Hunt, c. 1635, oil on canvas, 2.66 x 2.07 m (Musée du Louvre), inscribed: "Carolus.I.REX Magnae Britanniae" - Charles I rules Great Britain

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker  .
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music playing) Steven: We're in The Louvre in Paris and we're looking at a large, vertical portrait of Charles I, King of England. Beth: Charles I was self-conscious about being short, but he seems anything but short here. Steven: He's towering over the landscape. Beth: Well, we really look up at him. Steven: In fact, his head is seen against the sky just below the high boughs of that tree, but the artist has very cleverly framed his face by his hat, so that the face isn't lost against the brightness of the sky. Beth: And his clothing is fabulous, the satin top, turned down leather boots. Steven: Well, he's incredibly fashionable. Throughout this entire painting, there is a sense of studied elegant nonchalance. Beth: It almost seems like he's even above posing as king. Here, he is shown during the hunt. He's come down from his horse. His horse is being taken care of by the groom. There's a page in the background who seems to be holding his hunting jacket. He's stepped out to face the horizon, but he turns to look out at us. Steven: Well, it seems as if he's on his way but he's taking only the most cursory glance, not even acknowledging us, just "Ah yes, of course you are there." (Steven and Beth snickering) Beth: It's true and he was known for having this issue with authority, one could say. Steven: Well, he felt that he was the absolute authority an absolute monarch whose right to rule came from God. Beth: And during his reign, there was several conflicts with parliament, who tried to check his power. Steven: And there were further problems because he was seen to be too "high church". Beth: Right. He married a Catholic and he had very strict ideas about worship that got in the way of the Puritans and the Calvinists. Steven: And there were other issues that had to do with the expenditure of money because of wars on the continent. Beth: So eventually, things came to a head with parliament, two civil wars. Ultimately, he was arrested, tried, found guilty and beheaded in London. Steven: And England was briefly ruled by Oliver Cromwell, who was on the opposing parliamentary side as a republic, but it's interesting to note that that brief period was followed by the restoration of the monarchy and Charles' son, Charles II, would then rule England. Beth: What we're looking at though is this prototype of the ideal aristocratic portrait that we see in England for another almost 200 years. Steven: Well this has enormous impact, especially on 18th century painters like Gainsborough and Reynolds and it's important when we look at this painting, since we know the subsequent history of the beheading etc., to understand that this painting was made well before. This king is so clearly confident of his power. Beth: Van Dyck was a child prodigy. Before the age of 20, he was a master in the Painter's Guild, the Guild of St. Luke at Antwerp. He was the head assistant in Ruben's studio. Van Dyck became famous for painting portraits, although he also painted religious images. Steven: And Van Dyck, like his great teacher Rubens, had a large studio with lots of assistants, so that he could turn out those portraits. Beth: Van Dyck was clearly influenced by Tission, by later by Baroque painters. I'm thinking of Baroque art, especially with that elbow, that juts out into our space. Steven: He's come off his horse. This is in a sense an equestrian portrait, but dismounted. Beth: And if you think about equestrian portraits, their history goes back to the ancient Roman emperors and there is an image by Van Dyck of Charles I on a horse, is a symbol of power but to show the king still powerful even off the horse is quite an achievement. Steven: He doesn't need any of the trappings. He doesn't need the crown. He doesn't need the sceptor. He doesn't need to be mounted on the horse. He alone even in this informal hunting costume is enough to express his complete control of the State. Beth: And he was smart enough to hire Van Dyck. Van Dyck had an official role in the court of Charles I, so Charles clearly also saw art as a way of proclaiming his powers of kind of propaganda for his rule. Steven: There is a corollary between the pose of the king as we see it here and the artist's ability to make painting look easy. Van Dyck has an ability to run his paintbrush across the surface of the canvas, delineating forms with the kind of ease that makes it look certain and it is a perfect coupling with the self-assurance of the king. (piano music playing)