Reunited from all over the world for the first time in four centuries, Charles I’s extraordinary collection of masterpieces is less an art show than a historic event
Charles I was executed at 2pm on 30 January 1649. To reach the balcony where the icy block awaited, he had to pass through the Palace of Whitehall. All through this enormous complex, larger than the Vatican, were the many hundreds of masterpieces the king had commissioned, received or bought – by Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Van Dyck – over two decades of zealous accumulation. It was the most extraordinary art collection in Europe and then, at one blow, it was gone.
Cromwell’s Sale of the Late King’s Goods rapidly dispersed nearly 2,000 works to cancel debts and raise money for his New Model Army. Some were given as jocose gifts – the royal draper got tapestries, the royal plumber got Bassano’s The Flood – others were fought over by European ambassadors. Spain acquired Titian’s spectacular life-size portrait of emperor Charles V, effortlessly calming a dog. France got his intensely moving Supper at Emmaus. Other paintings, tumbled in the tide of history, eventually reached the New World – an unusually penetrating Van Dyck now belongs to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, an eerie Bruegel of grisaille figures moving among shadows went to the Frick in New York.
But now they have returned to London for the first time since 1649, reunited in Charles I: King and Collector at the Royal Academy. This is a historic event, a marvel of organisation, borrowing power and intensive scholarship. It is not a show so much as an entire museum of masterpieces, from Holbein’s infinitely sensitive Tudor portraits to Titian’s stupendous grace, from the eroticism of Veronese to the silk-and-satin swagger of Van Dyck.
The opening gallery sets the tone with a terrific group portrait of the art scene. Here is that wily collector the Earl of Arundel, whose buying forays into continental Europe inspired the king. Here is Rubens, who twice worked at the court, handsome in his debonaire self-portrait; and poor Daniel Mytens, touchingly hesitant in his, soon to be demoted as royal painter by the arrival of Van Dyck.
Inigo Jones, Whitehall architect, leans on a pedestal holding a drawing as crumpled as he is in Van Dyck’s livewire sketch. And here is the Flemish prodigy himself in the tremendous Self-Portrait With a Sunflower, coaxed out of a private collection: the artist in scarlet satin lifting an impressive gold chain with one hand, pointing at the colossal sunflower with the other. The gesture implies barter – I got this gold for painting that glorious (royal) sunflower.
Charles’s first great spending spree was to Spain in 1623, during the so-called “Spanish match”, when he failed to woo the infanta but returned home instead with numerous paintings, including Titian’s Charles V. Soon he would buy up the famous Gonzaga collection, starring Mantegna’s multi-part The Triumph of Caesar, nine monumental canvases magnificently displayed here (as they generally aren’t in the Royal Collection) in a massive central gallery through which one pursues the ancient procession in its inexorable onward march like a gawping follower on foot.
Mantegna inspired Correggio and Titian, who inspired Rubens, who taught Van Dyck. You can see the evolution of art happening before your very eyes at the Royal Academy; and the degree to which portraiture, for instance, consolidated power. This runs all the way from Holbein’s painting of the hawkish politician Robert Cheseman, sharp-beaked as the royal falcon on his arm, on loan from the Mauritshuis, to all the soaring propaganda of Van Dyck.
Sickly from childhood rickets, barely 5ft 3in and constantly trying to build himself up with strenuous hours in the saddle, Charles appears in supreme command of various gleaming stallions; out on the civil war battlefields; or at home with his family, finger to pensive temple as if he were a philosopher king. His even shorter wife is depicted alongside a dwarf, to boost her height, mouth painted with such suave vagueness as to disguise the fact that her front teeth projected, people said, like guns from a fortress.
These paintings leave you reeling, just as Van Dyck intended. They hung in state galleries and public apartments, looking down on emissaries from abroad. Captions give the whereabouts of each work in Whitehall Palace (and, where known, its next owner) so that a sense of life at court emerges through the show. It is not just that one sees the people themselves, brilliantly portrayed, but what they looked at in turn passing through the court.
And it is strange, at times, to think of the images with which Charles surrounded himself. In the breakfast room hung a painting of Van Dyck’s mistress, one breast tantalisingly bared. In one of the bedrooms the king kept a painting of the children of his volatile mentor, the murdered Duke of Buckingham. In the private Cabinet Room there were many likenesses of his older brother, Henry, who died of typhoid fever at the age of 18, but also Rembrandt’s portrait of his own mother.
The most startling gallery, however, presents baroque art belonging to the queen. She owned the Florentine painter Cristofano Allori’s sensational portrait of himself as the severed head of Holofernes, dangling from the hand of a Judith played by the girlfriend who had just left him; self-portrait as murder victim. And her apartments contained the highly original work of the Italians Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi. Orazio’s Head of a Woman – pale, tense, eyes and ears alert to sinister footsteps offstage – is one of the show’s revelations.
Orazio frescoed Buckingham’s grand home on the Strand, and proved a difficult house guest to oust following the duke’s murder. Buckingham’s widow also had to rid herself of any art with royal associations after the king’s death, when pictures became acutely political. All the Italian Renaissance art in this show – from Veronese’s swooningly beautiful half-naked Venus to Correggio’s ardent saints – spoke to the Commonwealth of earthly delights or continental Catholicism.
Art comes awake in this show, from stiff Elizabethan miniatures to the extraordinarily fluid experiments of Titian, his brush appearing to think the world into life moment by moment. Anyone with the slightest interest in painting might hope to see it. But the curators, Per Rumberg and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, have achieved something else as well in their scrutiny of the coincidence between art and politics.
This is of course conventionally apparent in the portraits of power: potentates all the way from Caesar to Charles. But these images carry a sense of doom within them. Charles I as silken cavalier on horseback too often has empty eyes, despite Van Dyck’s best efforts. His exact contemporary, Philip IV of Spain, appears puffy, adenoidal and weak in Velázquez’s portrait from around 1623, lent by the Meadows Museum in Texas.
Ars longa, vita brevis: that might be the show’s motto. The people portrayed have all passed away, some into history, others oblivion. The paintings they bought no longer belong to them. Art survives, and artists are free to make whatever they want of the world; kings, even those claiming a divine right, are not.
• Charles I: King and Collector is at the Royal Academy, London, until 15 April
On the right, in three-quarter angle, the king is a suave cavalier with an earring. Front on, he is the highbrow scholar-soldier he wished to be. But on the left, he has the weak profile of a vain dilettante. Van Dyck’s revealing triple portrait was sent to Rome so Bernini could carve a bust from the likeness, but even he, biggest flatterer of all, couldn’t quite delete that telltale profile.
Rembrandt painted this haunting image barely five years before Charles I acquired it; the king was a zealous collector of contemporary art. It is conventionally described by historians as a “tronie”, or character study. But the pensive face beneath the hood, eyes down, partially illuminated by the gold glow, belongs to Rembrandt’s own mother, here tenderly portrayed in old age.
This is Titian as master dramatist, bringing to life the biblical revelation of Christ’s sudden (and posthumous) appearance to a pair of disciples over dinner at Emmaus. But it is also Titian as humorist, delighting in the stand-off between the cat and dog beneath the table, and , and as the greatest portrait painter of his age. Look at the Italian on the right and you would know him anywhere, stock-still, humbled and amazed.
Photograph: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018
Source: The Guardian