Credit: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
The royal art collector who shaped the taste of a nation
His long face is accentuated by a pointy beard and whiskery mustache, a large drop pearl dangling from his left ear. His hair, as was the fashion of the time, is longer on one side -- a recurring detail in the many paintings he sat for.
This is King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland, as depicted in a famous triple portrait by the Flemish artist, Anthony van Dyck, in the 1630s. The king commissioned the painting as a reference for the great Italian sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who would later carve a bust of him.
The artwork serves as the centerpiece of a majestic new exhibition, "Charles I: King and Collector," at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. A dozen dimly lit galleries present masterpiece after masterpiece, all of which were owned or commissioned by the king.
Titian, Mantegna, Correggio, Raphael, Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck -- 140 artworks in all, many of which were loaned by the British royal family's private collection. Others have come in from the Louvre in Paris and the Prado in Madrid.
The exhibition, an attempt to reassemble a great 17th-century art collection, has been five years in the planning. Charles I amassed some 1,500 paintings and 500 sculptures during a feverish spending spree in the 1620s and '30s.
Upon entering, you feel as if you've sneaked into a private royal apartment to enjoy artworks the king once showed off to visiting dignitaries at his Whitehall Palace centuries ago. (My personal highlights were a wall of five Holbein oil paintings and another of three magnificent Titians).
A taste for art
Charles I developed his collecting habit as a 22-year-old prince, on his first and only trip abroad: a madcap dash to Madrid in 1623. As a precaution against kidnapping, he and his companion, the Duke of Buckingham, went incognito by wearing false beards and traveling as the "Smiths."
Their purpose was diplomatic: to smooth negotiations for Charles' arranged marriage to Maria Anna of Spain, sister of the Spanish King Philip IV. Nothing came of the match, but the prince was enraptured by the art at the Spanish court and began buying some himself.
His early purchases suggested a taste for the erotic, as seen in Titian's "Woman with a Fur Coat" and, later, Veronese's "Mars, Venus and Cupid." His chief passion would always be Italian Renaissance art.
By 1625, Charles had become king and married a French princess, the 15-year-old Henrietta Maria. With a preference for northern Renaissance art, she helped expand his tastes.
The king's greatest single coup was acquiring a fabulous art collection owned by the Gonzaga family in Mantua, northern Italy. Having built up the collection over the course of 150 years, the dynasty had run up large debts. The Gonzaga's loss was Charles's gain.
The collection transformed the king into an art connoisseur. It took three shipments -- in 1628, 1630 and 1632 -- to deliver it to London.
His greatest prize was Mantegna's "Triumphs of Caesar," an extraordinary series of nine vast canvases, each almost nine square feet in size. The artwork now fills the Royal Academy's largest gallery. Murkily lit, it depicts a Roman victory parade of banners, trumpets, chariots and elephants.
A king immortalized
Charles liked his commissioned art to reflect his power and authority, as well as his taste. In a new biography, author Leanda de Lisle, wrote that he possessed "a cinematic imagination," and "used the visual -- a theatre of ceremony, ritual and beauty -- both at court and in church."
The king made Van Dyck his court painter in 1632. Both he and the queen would visit the artist in his studio to watch him at work. Van Dyck completed some 40 portraits of the king, and he almost certainly made Charles look more impressive in oil than he was in the flesh. The king was only 5-foot-4 (and allegedly self-conscious about it), yet a trio of 12-foot equestrian portraits -- showing the king in full armor -- dominate a central gallery at the Royal Academy.
Another huge image of the king, entitled "Charles I in the Hunting Field," is also on loan from the Louvre. In the exhibition catalog, the Prince of Wales, Charles, suggests that this painting is "surely the greatest of all Van Dyck's royal portraits," and celebrates the reunion of his namesake's art collection as "glorious."
Van Dyck himself probably never saw these huge equestrian pictures displayed together. But Desmond Shawe-Taylor, the exhibition's co-curator and Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures (a job title created by Charles I in 1625), regards Van Dyck as the show's chief "protagonist." He argues that the artist brought a new intimacy -- a new tenderness -- to royal portraiture, citing Van Dyck's paintings of the king and queen together with their first two children, "Great Peece," and a later portrait of the king's five eldest children. The arranged marriage was very happy and it shows.
In the aforementioned triple portrait, the king looks aloof, serenely staring into the distance. There's a delicacy about the long face and a sense of luxury about the dress -- three differently patterned lace collars, three different satin costumes. You sense his effete, foppish detachment and the court bubble in which he lived.
And of course, if you know a bit about British history, you are reminded of the terrible fate that awaited Charles. He was beheaded 1649, 13 years after the portrait was painted. Van Dyck had died seven years previously following a long illness, and the motto on his tomb reads: "Sir Anthony van Dyck who, while he lived, gave many immortal life."
A lost collection
After the bloody English Civil War and the overthrow of monarchy, the king's art collection was sold and dispersed. But Oliver Cromwell and his republican government left an inventory. Some royal creditors, including a court plumber, accepted paintings in lieu of cash.
Exhibition captions give us some of the prices -- £5 ($7) for a small Breughel, £30 ($43) for a Holbein portrait, £150 ($214) for van Dyck's group portrait of the royal family, £600 ($856) for Titian's "Supper at Emmaus." After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II set up a committee to retrieve his father's art treasures but its success was limited.
Some of Charles I's collection is still unaccounted for. Shawe-Taylor encouraged us to keep an eye out. Look out, he said, for a royal stamp at the back marked C.R. (for the Latin "Carolus Rex").
After all, Leonardo da Vinci's painting of Jesus Christ, "Salvator Mundi" -- once owned by Charles I and his Queen -- only officially resurfaced in 2011, after much scholarly research and conservation work. The Cromwellian inventory shows that it was sold for just £30 ($43). At auction last November, it fetched rather more: a world record price of $450 million.
And that -- we can safely assume -- is rather more than a 17th-century king's ransom.
"Charles I: King and Collector" is on at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until April 15, 2018.