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Rubens and the young Van Dyck

Anthony Van Dyck was born in Antwerp on 22 March 1599 into a prosperous and pious family, the seventh child of twelve (and second eldest son) of a fabric dealer. The dean of the Antwerp guild of painters (the Guild of St Luke), Hendrick Van Balen (1575-1632), accepted Van Dyck as a pupil when he was ten years old. In 1618 he was enrolled in the guild as a master, and at this time he was already known to Rubens, who described him as "the best of my pupils" (in a letter to Sir Dudley Carleton dated 28 April 1618). He became one of Rubens' principal assistants, and made preparatory drawings (modelli) after Rubens' designs to be engraved by his printmakers.

For the young Anthony Van Dyck, as indeed for all artists of his generation, Rubens must have cut an impressive and larger than life figure. He was incontestably established as the leading painter of the Southern Netherlands, with an ever-growing international reputation. His consummate skill, combined with an understanding of European dynastic politics, meant that he could be increasingly artistically ambitious. His command of languages and courteous character also recommended him for diplomatic service. He served as an ambassador to Spain, and was granted noble status in 1624 by the Spanish king, Philip IV (he was later knighted twice for his political service, once in 1630 by Charles I of England and again in 1631 by Philip IV).

Rubens' social ambition went together with an eagerness to promote prestige for his profession. His interests and appearance accorded with that expected of a person of gentile rank. Upon returning to Antwerp from Italy in 1608 he built a sizeable house, filling it with paintings and classical sculpture. As he won commissions from the crowned heads of Europe his income allowed such extravagances. It is easy to see why the young Anthony Van Dyck would want to emulate him. Information about Van Dyck during this period highlights his developing sense of pride. In Italy he dressed splendidly in a feathered hat and gold chain given to him in 1622 by the Duke of Mantua. He also kept a retinue of servants, and he was described as having manners more like "those of an aristocrat than a common man." This was not always meant as a compliment however, as his fellow Flemish painters complained that Van Dyck seemed to think himself above them.

Rubens' example to Van Dyck with respect to printmaking was his entrepreneurial spirit and his commitment to producing high quality prints after his own paintings. Rubens had drafted designs for printmakers to be engraved for title pages for the Plantin Press, the largest printing press in Europe. He realized the potential printed images had for spreading his name and bringing him new patrons and profit. He then went about obtaining 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.