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Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641)

P.2753-R Sometime after his return to Antwerp from Italy late in 1627 and before his departure to London in 1632 Van Dyck produced a small number of etchings. Most of these are portraits of his fellow artists and members of the close knit artistic community of Antwerp. The etchings were executed around the same time that Van Dyck was carrying out an ambitious project of a series of uniform portrait engravings after his own designs, which later became known as the Iconography. The etchings however, were never included in the series during Van Dyck's lifetime, and the difference between the two groups was appreciated even within the seventeenth century: "The best are those he etched himself," wrote the art historian Gian Pietro Bellori (1613-1696) in 1672. The portraits are closely observed, but executed to varying degrees of finish. In some cases, as with the self portrait illustrated here, a well-defined head stands out against an expanse of empty space. In other cases the rest of the figure is minimally indicated by loose and open forms.

The portrait was dramatically transformed after Van Dyck’s death at the behest of a publisher called Gillis Hendricx, who chose to use the self portrait as a title page for his edition of the Iconography. The printmaker Hendricx employed to rework and finish the plate was Jacques Neeffs. Neeffs transformed Van Dyck's head into a bust sculpture placed on top of a pedestal. Van Dyck's coat of arms appears at the centre, and at the sides there are two smaller profile busts: Minerva (left) with a trumpet, and Mercury (right) with his caduceus. (P.2754-R)

Van Dyck inherited an interest in printmaking from his master Peter Paul Rubens (P.2841-R). Rubens realized the potential printed images had for spreading his name and bringing him new patrons and profit, and became committed to producing high quality prints after his own paintings. After his return to Antwerp from Italy in 1608 he obtained a privilege (a form of copyright), which permitted him to publish prints after his paintings, and began to put together a workshop of engravers to work alongside his painting studio. Rubens carefully supervised the process of translating his paintings into a printed medium, retouching proofs in areas that needed correcting. To ensure the prints were of the highest quality, Rubens sought the most talented engravers of the day, namely Lucas Vorsterman, Paulus Pontius, the brothers Boetius and Schelte à Bolswert and Pieter de Jode the Younger. Almost all these men would go on to work for Anthony Van Dyck, and it may have been Vorsterman who taught Van Dyck how to etch.

This print is on display in the exhibition Changing Faces: Anthony Van Dyck as an Etcher 17 February - 24 May 2009 Charrington Print Room (Gallery 16)

Museum Number P.2753-R