In 1632, Belgian artist Anthony Van Dyck was appointed Court Painter to Charles I. As Painter to the King, Van Dyck was obliged to make portraits of the British royal family, but other commissions soon followed from members of the royal court. Another Flemish artist, Gerrit van Honthorst, had visited England a few years earlier, also at the invitation of Charles I. He became a particular favourite of Charles’ sister Elizabeth Stuart, the dowager Queen of Bohemia, whose full-length portrait we see adjacent.
The Kings’ tendency to sponsor only imported talent delayed the arrival of a modern British school and stunted its early growth. However, because of Van Dyck’s great success, portrait painting gained popularity in England as never before, and the demand for portraiture led to career opportunities for native-born artists. The other paintings in this room are a testimony to this.
In his hometown of Antwerp, Van Dyck’s prodigious gifts were recognised very early on. At 19 years of age, he was employed as an assistant to the most sought-after artist of the time, Peter Paul Rubens. But note well: Van Dyck was not engaged by Rubens as an apprentice, he was Rubens’ assistant, deeming him a fully-fledged professional at just 19.
King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria enjoyed presenting masques at the royal court; these were lavish spectacles of dance, music, poetry and drama. Courtiers were expected to perform, and to dazzle their peers with the splendour of their costume, if not always with their dramatic talents and musical accomplishments.
The sight of society men and women playing at being mythological characters must have influenced the way Van Dyck portrayed some of the individuals who occupied the inner circle of the Stuart court. In this double portrait, the daughters of the courtier Thomas, First Viscount Savage, appear as quasi-mythical entities, with Cupid as their companion.
Van Dyck spreads an extravaganza of deep, lustrous colour before our eyes. He creates the effect of movement across the pictorial surface: a rustle of creases and folds and bows and flowers, which acts as a foil to the smooth, lily-white complexions of the young women. The paleness of their skin is accentuated by the rich colours of their surroundings and by their matching pearl necklaces and earrings.
The National Gallery, London’s curator Dr Susan Foister identifies the colour symbolism in this painting, seen in the contrast between the two dresses worn by the sisters. The elder sister Elizabeth wears a saffron-coloured dress, a colour associated with brides in classical antiquity, whereas the younger sister Dorothy is dressed in virginal white.