Some of the men etched by Van Dyck had already appeared in print. Erasmus' portrait had been engraved by Philip Galle (1537-1612) in 1567, probably after the same painting by Holbein that Van Dyck later used as the source for his etching. Pieter Brueghel the Elder appeared in the earliest series of artists' portrait prints, published in the Netherlands in 1572, called Pictorum aliquot celebrium Germaniae inferioris effigies. The Netherlandish poet, Domenicus Lampsonius (1532-1599) composed Latin poems that were printed by letterpress below each portrait. It was never issued as a book, but the numbers on the upper-right corners of the plates show that they were meant to be arranged chronologically. The poems describe the artist's part in the history of painting. The series shows that artists thought of themselves as having a history independent of other professions, which could be traced through the contributions of individual masters. Many of the portraits show a painter holding devices of his trade. The image below is a portrait of Pieter Coecke (1502-50), the 16th plate to the series:
Van Dyck's Iconography falls into this tradition of portrait series of distinguished contemporaries, but it differs from previous models because Van Dyck intended that all the prints were to be after his own designs, rather than relying on existing portraits by other artists.
The sitters in the Iconography can be divided into three groups - princes, politicians and military commanders, statesmen and scholars, and artists and collectors. This last group far outnumbered the first two - it comprised two thirds of the total eighty plates. The plates were first published by an art dealer called Martin Van den Enden (1605-1673?), although the terms of the arrangement between designer and publisher are not clear. It is often assumed that the project was Van Dyck's initiative because the title page for the first posthumous edition states that the copperplates were engraved at the artist's own cost.
Van Dyck enlisted Rubens' top engravers to cut plates after his designs. Lucas Vorsterman and Paulus Pontius engraved the vast majority of the eighty plates (counted together the number is fifty-two). The remaining plates were engraved by Schelte à Bolswert, Willem Jacobsz. Delff, Cornelis Galle, Willem Hondius, Pieter de Jode the younger, Nicolaes Lauwers and Robert van Voerst: Very few documents giving precise information about production dates have been preserved. The project was in motion as early as 1631, as the date written by Pontius on an impression of the portrait of Balthazar Gerbier suggests, and as late as 1637 after Van Dyck's move to England, when he wrote a request for an inscription for the portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby.
Much of the history behind the series can only be speculatively reconstructed, and this even includes information from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1644 the copperplates for the Iconography changed hands from Van den Enden to another publisher Gillis Hendricx (active 1640- died 1677). Hendricx also acquired Van Dyck's etched plates at this time. The plates were sold at auction after Hendricx's death in November 1677. Two brothers, Henry and Corneille Verdussen, published an edition sometime around 1720, calling it Le Cabinet des plus beaux portraits (image right). The Verdussen brothers are the next known owners. Exactly who bought the plates in 1677 and their whereabouts throughout the intervening decades is a mystery. The only thing that can be said for certain is that the plates stayed together. They may have stayed around the Utrecht region, as a landscape print published there was etched by Willem de Heusch (1625-1692) on the reverse of the plate of Jan de Wael.
The plates were sold by Henry Verdussen's widow in 1752. They were probably bought by Arkstee and Merkus, publishers with establishments in Antwerp and Leipzig. They published an edition in 1759 with a title page on which the name Iconography (or, rather Iconographie) appeared for the first time. The plates surfaced again almost a century later in 1851, when they were bought by the Chalcographie department of the Musée du Louvre in Paris. The Louvre electroplated the plates to preserve them from further wear.