In this monumental 367 x 292.1 cm painting, a man sits on a muscular horse, towering over a servant who passes him a helmet to complete his armor. A Latin inscription on the tablet hanging from a tree identifies him as "King of Great Britain": this is Charles I, surveying his kingdom.
The muscular horse, the shining armor, what does this portrait really say and why?
There is no more majestic painting in London's National Gallery than Anthony van Dyck's Equestrian Portrait (with the subject on horseback), but deeply flawed, politically inept and hapless King Charles I, who ended his days beheaded on scaffolding erected outside Banqueting House in Whitehall, having been found guilty by the English Parliament of being a "tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy of the good people of the nation".
The famous equestrian portrait of very large dimensions and with an exciting and rich history. The representation of the King conveys an image of power and dignity.
Pigment analysis shows how Van Dyck achieved subdued hue and subtle colors. The dark, flat tones are due in part to the degradation of pigments, particularly enamel and red and yellow lakes.
Painted before the bloody troubles of the English Civil Wars, when the King ruled without Parliament, a period known as the Personal Rule (1629-1640), this gigantic painting invites us to admire and respect the armored monarch sitting on his majestic steed.
Positioned at the level of his stirrup, the viewer is forced to look at the king, who is actually only 5 feet 4 inches tall. On closer inspection, her face, in three-quarter view, is a pale complexion of dignified restraint. Her hair is long on the left side (called a "locket") and she has a large pearl earring on her left ear, both of which reflect the court fashion of the time.
Charles is depicted not only as a king, but also as an emperor of the British and a Christian warrior, dominating everything he sees. He is the master of his horse, champion bower, leader of a group of chivalrous knights, ruler of nature, and the serene and silent ruler of a seemingly peaceful and generous kingdom.
These are some of the key messages that the main court painter, Anthony van Dyck, wanted to convey on behalf of his exalted patron.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Flemish artist Sir Anthony van Dyck almost single-handedly sparked a revolution in portrait painting in early 17th-century England. This revolution would shape British portrait painting for centuries to come, influencing the likes of Sir Peter Lely, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence.
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