Charles I: Art Lover Extraordinaire

Titian, The Supper at Emmaus, 1534 (Louvre, Photo © RMN-Grand Palais / Stéphane Maréchalle)
The ill-fated English king amassed a cutting-edge collection, reassembled in a stunning show at the Royal Academy.

The most ambitious and aesthetically satisfying show of 2018 will be, I predict, the Royal Academy’s Charles I: King and Collector. Ambitious, as it reconstitutes the flavor of Charles’s superb art collection, scattered to the four winds in the famous Commonwealth Sale. Held in 1651, two years after his execution, it raised cash for the new Cromwell regime and was the art sale of the century. The show’s loans are astonishing. Aesthetically satisfying? How could the very best by Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Correggio, and Van Dyke not be?

Seeking a wife in the court of Spain’s Philip IV in 1623, the young Prince Charles, soon to be Charles I, fell in love instead with Titian and his circle, anchors of his fellow monarch’s own impressive art cache. By the time he left Madrid, Charles had acquired not a wife — he later married the daughter of France’s King Henry IV — but an insatiable collecting bug. Over the next 20 or so years, he bought about 1,500 paintings, 500 sculptures, and exceptional miniatures, prints, and drawings. The Academy show comprises about 150 items. As a king, Charles was a catastrophe. As a collector, he was, as Rubens said, “the greatest amateur of paintings of all the princes in the world.”

At the heart of the show are two big galleries showing Van Dyke’s royal portraits, including the great equestrian portraits of Charles.

Anthony van Dyck, Charles I in the Hunting Field, 1636 (Louvre,
Photo © RMN-Grand Palais / Christian Jean)

Charles looks like a god when appropriate, but also in other pictures like a loving husband, a respected father, or nonchalant aesthete. Among the show’s many virtues are its implicit character studies of the king and his principal artist, Van Dyke. Charles was never meant to be king. His older brother, Henry, died before their father, James I, putting the insecure, stubborn, hubristic, unprepared, and pint-size Charles in charge. He knew next to nothing about the country he governed. Compared with Charles, everyone seemed bigger, handsomer, smoother, and smarter.

First brought to London at age 20 by the Marquess of Buckingham, Van Dyck was a stranger in a strange land, much as Charles was a stranger in the land of power and authority. He left London after a short time and spent six transformative years in Italy. He returned in 1631, an established, revered artist. He’d finally emerged from the shadow of Rubens, who was older, immensely distinguished, and also from Antwerp. Charles was convinced that collecting art would compensate for his painfully blatant deficiencies. Together, these two outsiders, the same age, naturally simpatico, developed an avant-garde, opulent iconographic program. Their partnership changed portraiture forever.

But isn’t there a hefty dollop of irony and theatricality in these portraits? Charles was not without self-awareness. His eye for art was sharp, and he understood that image was reality. But what was Charles’s reality? While Rubens’s royal subjects gush with confident, obvious strength, Van Dyck’s depictions of Charles and his family have a touch too much languor. Both artist and king loved sumptuous color and fabric. There’s also a palpable love of dressing up. Do the subjects seem serious and tough? No. Van Dyck’s royals are slim, elongated, and vaguely unworldly, with moving draperies and clouds in the background. We feel the swoosh. Yet a monarchy on the move is also a monarchy that’s not stable.

Both men were what we would call globalist in outlook at a time when “England First” was taking a firm hold. Charles had a Roman Catholic, French wife, and what about that expensive art collection, filled with gaudy Italian pictures? Van Dyck, also Catholic, from the Spanish Netherlands and a painter of images, would have seemed odious to anyone with a Puritan state of mind. He was pan-European. Coming much later, only Sargent and Whistler among Western artists so effortlessly navigated and absorbed so many cultures.

Neither Charles nor Van Dyck was the court’s collective cup of hooch. Both were surely clued in to their own otherness. The art suggests it. Events proved it.

Charles and Van Dyck seem to have invented English foppishness, a look the royal court also found indigestible but for different reasons. A more venal, vulgar, drunken array of parasites and charlatans was hard to find. Van Dyck was probably the inspiration for Vangoose, the much-mocked, effete “rare artist” with a thick Dutch accent in Ben Jonson’s 1622 court play, Masque of the Augurs. Neither Charles nor Van Dyck was the court’s collective cup of hooch. By the late 1630s, with xenophobia sweeping the country, Van Dyck wanted out. The king was about to war with his own people. Both were surely clued in to their own otherness. The art suggests it. Events proved it.

The group portraits of Charles, Henrietta, and their children seem most genuine. The marriage was arranged, and it took years for the real chemistry between the two to develop, but develop it did. There was no defined concept of a “royal family,” at least in portraiture, and in reality, the Tudor and Stuart families were fraught and freakish, keener to throttle than embrace each other. Charles’s family looks united not only by blood but also tender feeling, which together make their line unbreakable. Their touchstone is domestic bliss, and this is very Dutch. It’s a look that future royals sought as they tried to keep the crown relevant and accessible.

One wing of show focuses on Northern Renaissance art, especially stellar works by Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, and Jan Gossaert.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Anne Cresacre, 1526–27 (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2018)

Another wing features the Italians. Charles loved small things, too, and when he tired of bungling his dynasty and his destiny, he retreated to his miniatures, many depicting his family. The show ends with a tribute to Van Dyke and Rubens as art advisers. This last gallery is a fizzle. The works don’t dazzle, and the two artists are best left as golden threads running through the show, much as Charles I as a personality looms large in each gallery.

Charles’s encounter with contemporary Italian art is a case study in how collections develop, or don’t. “The king prefers old paintings,” Pope Urban VIII’s envoy to Britain said, incorrectly, about Charles in 1635, suggesting that gifts of work by Rome’s cutting-edge artists wouldn’t have much wow value. Charles’s taste wasn’t that blinkered.

Correggio, Venus with Mercury and Cupid (“The School of Love”), 1525 (National Gallery, Photo © The National Gallery, London)

As a Protestant monarch, he found Roman Catholic subjects, martyrs and Maries especially, politically incorrect at the very least and often inducing the willies. To the English, after all, Italy was Babylon. As a practical matter, though, getting good work from Italy to London was difficult. Britain was still diplomatically isolated. Rome, then the art world’s center, had stringent export laws. Yet Charles’s wife, Queen Henrietta, was well connected in Rome — no surprise given that she was the pope’s goddaughter. Between his queen and his agents, including his ambassadors, Charles had a decent network. Sometimes he didn’t get what he wanted, and what he wanted evolved.

Charles owned Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin (from around 1605). It was the first Caravaggio in England and, I would suggest, the artist’s first truly radical altarpiece. It came with Charles’s early big haul, the Duke of Mantua’s collection, which he bought in its entirety in 1625. Charles liked this edgiest of pictures well enough to display it in the same gallery as his best Titians and one of his equestrian portraits by Van Dyke. During the Restoration, the royal family tried to buy back Charles’s things, but this Caravaggio got away for good. Louis XIV had bought it for the French royal collection; today the Louvre owns it, as it does Charles’s Leonardo da Vinci picture of an androgynous St. John the Baptist.

In 1632, Charles commissioned a bust of himself by Gianlorenzo Bernini, Rome’s hottest young artist. He loved Guido Reni, the most classical-driven artist in Baroque Italy, and wanted him to move to England and work for him. Reni declined, saying he’d hate the weather. We know Charles tried to find work by Bologna’s Carracci family and by Jusepe de Ribera, Spanish but based in Naples, but he didn’t succeed.

Charles was not yet 50 when he died, with many years ahead of him to change his priorities. He was clearly distracted by rebellion after 1640. Van Dyck died in 1641. His other key adviser, Orazio Gentileschi, older and more conservative than Van Dyck, died in 1638. Rubens left the court after he finished the Banqueting House ceiling in 1628 and died in 1640. Untethered from advisers, where would Charles have headed? I suspect toward Poussin, classical-minded, briefly Louis XIV’s court painter, and based in Rome. Also Rome-based, the young Claude Lorrain seems in keeping with his taste. Murillo, though Seville-based, grew to be revered by British, Flemish, and Dutch buyers looking for an Italian flavor but abhorring slaughtered saints, which Murillo didn’t do. In the 1640s, Murillo was just coming of age. We can only speculate, but we know for certain from this stellar show that the will, the daring, the eye, and the purse found in Charles a rare alignment.