Van Dyck's portrait etchings
The relationship between Van Dyck's portrait etchings and the engravings produced for the Iconography is not a simple one. We cannot be sure that Van Dyck's intended them for the Iconography as they were only included in posthumous editions. They are, however, very similar in format to the Iconography portraits, and some of the printmakers who engraved plates for the series also collaborated with Van Dyck on his etchings. It is often suggested that Van Dyck initially thought he could etch the faces of all the portraits for the series, and then oversee the completion of the plates at the hands of his engravers. If this was his intention, it was not carried out - the portrait prints published by Van den Enden were not begun in etching by Van Dyck. Perhaps he lost interest in the idea when he realised the scale of the project, or perhaps other things got in the way (the distance between Antwerp and England, for instance, where he settled in 1632). It is also possible that Van Dyck preferred the portraits that were engraved by one hand - that the result of two hands at work on a single plate was less successful than he had hoped.
Unfortunately, the firm dates in the surviving correspondence relating to the Iconography do not help with the dating of Van Dyck's etchings. However, it is possible to date them to around 1630. If Van Dyck had indeed imagined the series to comprise of plates that he himself had first etched, then it follows that the etchings belong to the earliest period. Another indicator is that Lucas Vorsterman returned to Antwerp around 1629/30. It is plausible that Vorsterman, who collaborated on many of Van Dyck etchings, taught him how to etch. One last clue is that Van Dyck carried out his subject etchings in this year. The date 1630 has been written on an impression of the etching of the Mocking of Christ (Albertina collection).
The lack of information about the intended purpose of the etchings is frustrating because that knowledge would help us interpret them correctly. Although the Iconography can be said to be an attempt by Van Dyck to increase his reputation, the etchings which were not published in his lifetime and not printed in very large numbers, can hardly be interpreted in the same way. However, the number or proofs that have survived is large enough in some instances to suggest that they may have been circulated amongst a small circle of intimates who appreciated their unfinished quality, and not reserved for just the sitter.
Evidence against the etchings ever having been intended for the Iconography is the existence of alternative portraits. Even though Van Dyck etched Paulus Pontius' portrait, the printmaker engraved his own likeness for the Iconography published by Van den Enden (see images to the right)
There are also alternative versions of the etchings of Joos de Momper and Jan Snellinck, which were included in the original eighty plates. These were engraved by Vorsterman and Pontius, and are evidently based on the same source as were Van Dyck's etchings. When Gillis Hendricx published his edition in 1645/6 there was therefore some duplication - Jan Snellincx and Joos de Momper, for example, appear twice: (see two sets of images below)
We should also bear in mind that for reproductive printmaking etching on its own was not generally considered acceptable for a finished product. This was because a printmaker could impose too much of his own style into the design. This may have been the reason why Van Dyck never employed the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) to work on the Iconography project. Of the two techniques, engraving was the more prestigious. The engravings produced under Rubens' direction were always highly finished. Etching was often used as groundwork for a composition, so skeletal lines would be etched first, and then other details and light and shade would be added by engraving. There were also print runs to think of: etching a plate was faster than engraving one, but fewer impressions could be printed before the plate started to show signs of wear.
However, if we consider that the etchings were originally intended to be part of a series of portraits of prestigious contemporaries, then, like the artists included in the Iconography, they serve as authority figures. Van Dyck drew the artists as prosperous, dignified men. There is no more respectful distance in the portraits of the generals and leaders than for the artists themselves. Their clothes, deportment and gestures play a vital role in presenting the sitter as befitting the company of rulers, scholars and statesmen. They are imbued with a strength of character and intellectual superiority that commands respect.
Van Dyck employed the simplest elements to produce these noble effects, but the poses of the half length figures vary widely. Some figures confidently meet the eyes of the viewer; others gaze downward with a gesture of contemplative intelligence. Van Dyck gives us insight into their personalities: more animated expressions, smiling mouths and forthright gestures contrast against the almost melancholic appearance of others.
The backgrounds are kept very simple so that they do not detract from the central subject. Classical columns indicate the presence of Antiquity, and were a common motif in Renaissance portraiture, suggesting qualities about the sitter such as fortitude and knowledge of the classical world.
As mentioned above, Van Dyck customarily portrayed the artists without alluding to their profession. In impressions printed before an inscription was added it is impossible to identify the men by their profession. The only allusions that are included are the mountain range in the portrait of Joos de Momper and possibly the rising smoke in the portrait of Jan Snellinck (see images above). The rolled sheet of paper in the portrait of Pieter Brueghel is as good for denoting a scholar as an artist (one also appears in the portrait of Van den Wouwer. The Latin inscriptions engraved in the margins beneath the portraits (for instance, under Jan Brueghel's portrait PICTOR FLORUM ET RURALIUM PROSPECTUM "painter of flower still lives and landscapes") add to the glorification of the sitters.
Van Dyck's technical proficiency in printmaking can be gathered from the mistake on the plates. The misplaced line through his moustache on the self portrait is a serious error for a draughtsman to make, but more obvious to the eye are the technical faults due to Van Dyck's inexperience with the etching technique. Errors of varying degrees of seriousness appear on almost all the early states, and in some cases they are quite disfiguring, such as in the faces of Willem de Vos and Paulus Pontius. Some imperfections are the result of a hand or sleeve accidentally removing the etching ground from the plate, allowing acid to create recesses in the plate where ink could sit to be printed. In other instances lines are prevented from printing, due to dropping acid-resistant varnish on the wrong areas of the plate. More experienced printmakers would have avoided making so many errors. Overall, Van Dyck seems to have been concerned with design over achieving perfection. When he was not happy with Jan De Wael's arm he removed it entirely from the plate, but he was not so anxious to make improvements to the portrait of Erasmus, for example, which was riddled with technical failures
When the plates passed into the hands of Gillis Hendricx, the publisher instigated alterations to the plates by skilled printmakers who had worked with Van Dyck. In some cases the removal of imperfections meant that Van Dyck's etched lines were concealed, as in the face of Willem de Vos. Further elaboration to the background and costumes of the sitters altered the portraits completely: Van Dyck's openly worked forms become densely wrought and polished. Other etchings escaped that fate, but were subjected to being re-immersed in acid, in order to deepen lines that had begun to show signs of wear. This also came at a cost, as the essential qualities of delicacy and subtlety, which make early impressions of Van Dyck's etching so appealing, were lost.
The Fitzwilliam Museum is fortunate to possess not only fine examples of rare early states, but also some subsequent later states after the plates were altered and added to. The next section of the virtual exhibition allows users to compare images of early impressions with later ones to witness in part the development of the portraits. Together the prints stand as testament to the regard with which the artists were held, both by Van Dyck himself and by those after him. The etchings in their pure state are among the most beautiful examples executed in that technique, and represent an important contribution to the history of prints. It is pleasing to know that Van Dyck was genuinely interested in printmaking, and that - as his bravura handling tells us - he genuinely enjoyed it.