Detail of Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), Portrait of Princess Mary, Daughter of King Charles I of England, 1641. Oil on canvas. Estimate £5,000,000-8,000,000. Offered in the Old Master Evening

One of the most important European royal portraits to come to auction for a generation

Commissioned in 1641 to celebrate the alliance between the British crown and the House of Orange, Anthony van Dyck’s Portrait of Princess Mary, Daughter of King Charles I of England is exceptional for its royal provenance, the superb quality of its draughtsmanship and its remarkable condition

On 6 December, Sir Anthony van Dyck’s highly important Portrait of Princess Mary (1631–1660), daughter of King Charles I of England, full-length, in a pink dress decorated with silver embroidery and ribbons  will be offered in the Old Masters Evening Sale  at Christie’s London, during Classic Week. The rare work, which comes from an eminent private collection and has distinguished royal provenance, highlights not only van Dyck’s significance as a royal court painter, but also his skill as a portraitist of children.

In 1632, van Dyck — by then well-reputed for his spectacular portraits of many of the most important noble dynasties of Europe — was appointed ‘Principal Painter in Ordinary to their Majesties’ by King Charles I in London. A passionate collector and patron, the King had long hoped to attract a painter of such status to his service, and found in van Dyck an artist not only capable of fulfilling his desire for magnificent portraits and paintings, but also one who shared his tastes, especially for Venetian pictures. 

Van Dyck first painted the sitter in the weeks immediately following his arrival in London in 1632, when the young Princess Royal was shown with her parents, King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, and elder brother, the future King Charles II. The monumental group portrait, known as ‘The Greate Peece’, dominated the King’s Long Gallery in the Palace of Whitehall (The Royal Collection). 

Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), Portrait of Princess Mary (1631–1660), daughter of King Charles I of England, full-length, in a pink dress decorated with silver embroidery and ribbons, 1641. Oil on canvas. Estimate £5,000,000-8,000,000. Offered in the Old Master Evening Sale on 6 December 2018 at Christie’s in London

Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), Portrait of Princess Mary (1631–1660), daughter of King Charles I of England, full-length, in a pink dress decorated with silver embroidery and ribbons, 1641. Oil on canvas. Estimate: £5,000,000-8,000,000. Offered in the Old Master Evening Sale on 6 December 2018 at Christie’s in London

Nine years later, in 1641, van Dyck was commissioned to paint a series of pictures to celebrate the marriage of the king’s eldest daughter to William II, Prince of Orange — a union intended to cement Anglo-Dutch relations.

Among the works he executed for the occasion are a painting of the couple, now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the present ad vivum  (from life) portrait, the prime portrait of the type, which would originally have formed part of the prestigious collection of the Princes of Orange. It would likely have been displayed in one of their principal palaces, possibly at Binnenhof Palace in The Hague, where Princess Mary lived with her husband William, alongside works by many of the most important Dutch and Flemish painters of the 17th century.  

In this portrait, which was one of the last commissions van Dyck undertook before his premature death at the age of 42, Mary is resplendent, wearing the wedding ring and diamond brooch that William gave to her on 3 May 1641, the day after their wedding.

‘Van Dyck revolutionised portraiture in Europe, and left a legacy for future generations of artists’ — John Stainton

Mary’s spectacular coral-coloured gown, which falls in broad, heavy folds and is trimmed in rich, silver thread, is thought to be similar to the one she wore for her marriage to the prince. The incredible sheen of Mary’s pearls, ribbons and textiles, which are painted in assured, swift strokes, are testament to van Dyck’s precision and skill at rendering different textures — characteristics that define his finest late works.

Mary would eventually follow William to Amsterdam, accompanied by an entourage of 400 courtiers, where she became Princess of Orange. William died of smallpox in 1650, just eight days before Mary gave birth to their son, the future William III of England. In 1660, after the restoration of Charles II to the throne, Mary returned to England with her son. Just months later, she too would succumb to the smallpox epidemic.

‘A work of the finest quality, it represents the culmination of all that van Dyck had learnt from his master, Peter Paul Rubens, and from his Venetian predecessors, notably Titian,’ says John Stainton, Deputy Chairman of Old Masters at Christie’s in London. ‘By developing his own distinctive style of portraiture, characterised by a calm authority and supreme elegance, van Dyck revolutionised portraiture in Europe, and left a legacy for future generations of artists ranging from Thomas Gainsborough and Thomas Lawrence to John Singer Sargent and Lucian Freud.’

Ahead of its sale, van Dyck’s portrait of Mary will go on public view for the first time at Christie’s in Shanghai from 19-21 September, before travelling to New York (25 to 30 October) and Hong Kong (23 and 26 November). It will be shown in London, ahead of the auction, from 1 to 6 December.