Anthony van Dyck at the Frick Collection

Anthony van Dyck was born in Antwerp in 1599, the son of a draper, Frans. His mother died when he was seven, and a few years later his father was effectively declared bankrupt. Many of his 11 siblings joined the church. Anthony, however, became one of the best portrait painters who ever lived. He was simply a gifted prodigy, able to apply paint to canvas from an early age as easily as you and I breathe.

A rare example of Van Dyck’s precociousness, a portrait of an unknown old man dated 1613, is on display in New York at the Frick Collection’s new exhibition, Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture. Young Anthony was proud of this picture, for he added his age to an inscription that translates as “Anthony van Dyck made this, at the age of 14”. Hung beside later examples of his portraiture, this half-hidden, broody old man seems to have been painted straightforwardly enough. But as the exhibition’s co-curator Stijn Alsteens notes, it is “unlike any other portrait known to have been produced in the Netherlands before that year”.

In other words, even at the age of 14 Van Dyck wanted to rewrite the rules of portraiture. And by 1623 he more or less had, to judge by his “Portrait of Cardinal Bentivoglio”, on loan to the Frick from the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. Painted in Rome shortly after Van Dyck had left Antwerp (and the employ of Rubens) to study the work of Italian artists such as Titian, “Cardinal Bentivoglio” was and still is regarded as a masterpiece of portraiture. Based on Titian’s “Portrait of Pope Paul III” but effortlessly surpassing it, Van Dyck makes Bentivoglio seem as alive as anyone ever has been on a piece of canvas.

Naturally, Bentivoglio is presented as rich and powerful, but he is never overwhelmed by the props that tell us who he is. His red cardinal’s robe is crumpled and lived-in, and above all is worn by a real person, not a mannequin, for Bentivoglio’s head is painted with such originality and deftness that we notice what he was like before we notice what he was. Although it is dangerous to believe we can see character in any portrait, Van Dyck’s Bentivoglio seems entirely like the man described by Cardinal Mazarin: “a sweet nature [with] noble thoughts, prudent, wise, experienced, witty, ingenious, and disinterested”. The picture has been sensitively restored for the exhibition.

'Portrait of a Seventy-Year-Old Man' (1613) © Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique

Another rarely seen painting lured to New York by the Frick (this time from the Czech Republic) is a double portrait of Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria. One of the first portraits Van Dyck painted for the king after his arrival in London in 1632, it replaced a painting of the same size and subject by Charles’ previous court painter, Daniel Mytens, which the queen disliked. Mytens’ formulaic presentation of the king and queen is devoid of emotion and movement, and diligently follows the prevailing pattern of British portraiture laid down a century before. Van Dyck’s harmonious and tender portrayal, on the other hand, was so good that it gave credence to the unusual idea that this king really did love his queen. Charles, a fantasist as well as an art lover, seized on Van Dyck’s ability to depict the world as he wished it to be. Between 1632 and his death in 1641, Van Dyck produced 23 separate portrait compositions of Charles and Henrietta Maria.

'Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio' (1623) © Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Quite why Van Dyck embraced portraiture to the extent he did we will never know. But thanks to the Frick we now have a better idea of how he did so, and in unpacking Van Dyck’s technical modus operandi this enjoyable, rigorous and intimate exhibition significantly advances our understanding of 17th-century portraiture. Drawings form the foundation of the show, and where possible are presented next to the finished paintings, so that we can chart the creative transition from thought, to paper, to canvas, and even to print.

'Charles I and Henrietta Maria Holding a Laurel Wreath' (1632) © Archbishop's Palace, Kromeriz

Initially, the visitor might be surprised to see so few portrait drawings by Van Dyck on display. Numerous drawings show how the artist explored his sitters’ poses and costume, but in most the head is left almost blank. A melancholy, life-size head study of Charles I, here on loan from the Rijksmuseum, is a rarity.

'Queen Henrietta Maria with Jeffery Hudson' (1633) © Beaux-arts de Paris/National Gallery of Art

In fact, the lack of portrait drawings is an important factor in Van Dyck’s success as a portraitist, for he preferred to paint from life directly on to the canvas. In a delicate oil study of the Princesses Elizabeth and Anne, on loan from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, we can see the confident umber outline in which Van Dyck first sketched the princesses’ likeness on to the canvas. Many other artists captured their sitters’ likeness in a drawing first, to be worked up later in paint. Such an approach invariably leads to a less successful portrait, for at the crucial moment of putting paint to canvas the sitter is absent.

'Frans Snyders' (circa 1627–35) © Fogg Museum, Harvard

Here we come to the heart of why Van Dyck was such a good portraitist. All portraits are the product of a contest between sitter and artist. The best portraitists are those who prevent the force of their artistic personality from overwhelming the likeness and character of their sitter. Sometimes, even the greatest artists can make bad portraitists. Rubens’ portraits, for example, can border on caricature, bursting as they do with the artist’s humour and painterly brio. Lucian Freud’s later portraits are similarly affected (though without the humour), for as Freud said, “all my works are autobiographical”. Lesser artists settle on a particular pattern for painting faces, and through boredom make relatives of their sitters.

'Self-Portrait' (circa 1620–21) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Frick exhibition demonstrates that there is no such thing as a generic “Van Dyck face”. Van Dyck’s chameleon-like ability to change style allowed him to approach sitters with a range of artistic techniques. As a result, we get the impression with each portrait that we are meeting someone new, a fresh face and a fresh character.

It is thus a shame that poor lighting and the limitations of the Frick’s classic interior mean that Van Dyck’s faces are here hard to see. This may be the Frick’s largest exhibition to date, yet it shows more than ever that this invaluable museum needs a new, dedicated exhibition space. Many pictures are hung too high, especially the full-lengths, and visitors are afforded an excellent lesson in how Van Dyck painted feet. Happily, he was good at those, too.

‘Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture’, Frick Collection, New York, to June 5. frick.org

Photographs: Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; Archbishop’s Palace, Kromeriz; Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh; École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts, Paris/National Gallery of Art, Washington; Fogg Museum, Harvard; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.