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The select few and the social context

A complex network of relationships existed between the artistic families of Antwerp, and those between the artists etched by Van Dyck are no exception. They were professionally and socially closely connected: Frans Snyders was a pupil of Pieter Brueghel the Younger; Jan Brueghel collaborated with Joos de Momper (among others); Van Dyck was godfather to Lucas Vorsterman's daughter; Jan Snellinck, Jan Brueghel and Jan de Wael were all related by way of marrying daughters of the printmaker and print publisher, Gerard de Jode (grandfather of the above-mentioned Pieter de Jode). They named each other as executors of their wills, and in surviving letters they refer to each other with intimacy and warmth. Van Dyck was friends with the sons of Jan de Wael, Lucas and Cornelis (he stayed with them in Genoa and painted a double portrait, see the etching by Wenceslaus Hollar to the right). Lucas had been a student of his uncle, Jan Brueghel.

The interconnectedness of the artistic community in Antwerp was not uncommon and due in part to their membership of a workers' guild. Throughout Europe guild membership was required of all artisans and tradesmen. That to which the artists of Antwerp belonged was called the Guild of St Luke. Those who joined were housepainters, printers, potters and dealers, but it was known as the "painters' guild" because of the high proportion of artists among its members. The guild regulated and protected its members and their work. Young apprentices would begin in studios of an existing member. After a number of years they would then submit a work to become a master in their own right, at which point they could take on students of their own. A member was entitled to sell works in the city, and might serve a term as dean.

At the time Van Dyck was beginning his apprenticeship to Van Balen, Antwerp was experiencing a cultural and economic revitalisation. The city had been the artistic centre of Europe in the first half of the sixteenth century, but had experienced a period of decline over the last fifty years. Political and religious upheavals in the 1560s had shattered its status, and Amsterdam usurped its position as economic heart of the Seventeen Provinces (roughly corresponding to the modern-day area of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg). In 1566 some of the provinces had rebelled against their Catholic ruler, Philip II of Spain. The fighting had been particularly violent in Antwerp, where Spanish troops and the rebel army used it freely as a battleground. In the early 1580s Spain regained control over Antwerp, now split with other southern towns from the northern United Provinces. In 1598 Philip died and sovereignty of Spain passed to his son, Philip III. His daughter Isabella received the Spanish Netherlands as a dowry in her marriage to her cousin Albert. The archdukes Albert and Isabella kept court at Brussels, thirty miles from Antwerp. In April 1609 a formal truce was settled between the Southern and United Provinces, but an informal one had been in existence since 1607. Rubens returned from Italy in 1608. His vitality and self confident exuberance helped to bolster this resurgence of optimism, which fortuitously happened to coincide with Van Dyck's apprenticeship.