Thursday, March 08, 2007

My dears,

As so many of you have asked me about my dissertation project, I have taken the liberty of publishing a short abstract below. If there is a whispering on the underground grapevine about studentships, fellowships or anything the like, I should be awefully pleased if you let me know...

Cheers, Nicki.

“Sprezzatura” - Van Dyck’s representation of the English Gentleman
by Nicki Schaepen

The dissertation project I propose to work on is intended as a study of the influence of Castiglione’s ideal of “sprezzatura” on the gentleman portraits of Van Dyck, an influence essential to a profound understanding of his work. Nevertheless, it has not been seen to have an important impact on the development of British portraiture and its ideal of “naturalness” in the 17th and 18th centuries. This study will thus be the first of its kind.

The first to remark on the unusual way of depicting English gentlemen was the American scholar Mark Roskill. He found that Van Dyck’s English portraits rested on their “effect, not on specific emblematic references or devices but on a general and diffused kind of allusion to a way of life and type of character, enforced by telling touches … a more self-consciously directed quality to gesture and gaze moves away from codified symbolism” (Roskill 1987, 184). Although many authors repeatedly noticed this supposed neglect in many of Van Dyck’s English portraits, they have not endeavoured to find an explanation that is both intellectually and aesthetically convincing.

Some of them praised his evidently loose handling of the brush as the finest manner the artist ever achieved. This very idea in mind Oliver Millar called it a “nervous touch” (Millar 2004), thus misleadingly evoking that the artist was mentally distressed. He and Arthur Wheelock made responsible for this apparent neglect of execution ill health and exhaustion (Wheelock 1990, 11; Millar 2004). Others attributed the sketchy brushwork of some pictures to assistants rather than to the master himself.

As Roskill summed up in the above quotation this neglect in painting technique is just a reflection of a general attitude that can be found in several elements of the paintings themselves. Emilie Gordenker made clear that Van Dyck’s casual handling of costume and his tendency to “undress” his sitters ‑ which I take to mean that he depicts them in more understated attire ‑ conveys specific meaning (Gordenker 2001). She related Van Dyck’s idiosyncratic handling of women’s costume with the comment by William Sanderson in his Graphice that Van Dyck was the first “…that e’re put Ladies dresse into a careless romance” (Rogers 1999, 88; Gordenker 2001, 49‑58) ‑ a fact that Malcolm Rogers had pointed at before. Despite her focus on Van Dyck’s female portraits Gordenker reflected on male attire as well and concluded that it was inspired by Baldassare Castiglione’s concept of “sprezzatura” (Gordenker 2001, 61‑2). Castiglione’s “sprezzatura” seems to me to be indeed the key concept for an investigation that attempts to unite the various forms of neglect described.

Castiglione had an immense impact on English cultural history, but in England ‑ unlike in Italy ‑ stress was layed more on the neglect itself than on “grace” as its superior aim. Jeffrey Muller is the only one to pursue the idea that Van Dyck’s “allusive portraits” (Roskill 1987) must be seen in connection with Castiglione’s concept of “grace”, but he clearly mistakes “grazia” with “sprezzatura”. The reception of Castiglione’s “The Courtier” has been the issue of an extremely inspiring study by Peter Burke. He shows in how many different areas of cultural life Castiglione’s ideal reverberated. Of special interest for my study is how it was echoed in early modern English courtly and educational writers and therefore in the educational system of public schools and colleges. It is not surprising to find that Van Dyck’s portraits of the (second) English Period reflect this newly developed self-conception of English aristocracy at the Stuart court.

It was at that court that Van Dyck had his greatest success. His images of the royal and noble sitters were so powerful and convincing that the England-based portraitists Daniel Mytens and Cornelis Jonson were obliged to retire to the country or leave England forever. Van Dyck’s success was based on his depiction of individuality which showed especially in his full-length portraits. Although his sitters appear to be representing a certain aristocratic ideal, the absence of a larger iconographic programme and apparatus emphasizes the authenticity of the individual. The spectator looks therefore at individuals who, admittedly still posing, appear more natural. It might be objected from a modern point of view that Van Dyck’s mannerist figures, composed of slightly exaggerated proportions and defined in a way that reminds us of Aretino’s concept of “prestezza” are quite far from a natural rendering of the body.

A last aspect I should like to mention is the randomness of the setting in which Van Dyck makes his sitters appear as though they could not anticipate our observing them. On the contrary, they seem to consider themselves unobserved, at ease or only momentarily distracted by our unexpected approach. We automatically get the impression of catching people in their natural conduct.

All this testifies for the educated and elaborated way in which Van Dyck met the taste and needs of his aristocratic clientele. The testimonies of early biographers claiming that he was arrogant and inerudite have too readily been accepted without questioning (cf. Valentiner 1950; Wheelock 1990, 11. 13). Only recently some of these have been reassessed by Kathlijne van de Stighelen (Stighelen 2001). The biographical sketches that can be found in Bellori, Sandrart and Boschini do more to convey their own purposes than confer reliable and objective information to posterity, as I will show in my forthcoming essay Van Dycks Selbstbildnis mit der Sonnenblume (Schaepen 2007).

The research that remains to be undertaken will lead me further into examining the exact relationship between Castiglione’s ideal and its influence in English society and especially into showing that as a basis for Van Dyck’s success it was indeed conceived as such an ideal by his contemporaries.
All rights reserved © 2007 Nicki Schaepen.