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

Old Masters specialist Jonquil O’Reilly illuminates the story behind Anthony van Dyck’s sumptuous Portrait of Princess Mary, Daughter of King Charles I of England, who was married at the age of 9 to cement Anglo-Dutch relations

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, Charles 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, but also one who shared his tastes, especially for Venetian pictures. 

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

‘She is using her hand to pull her skirt to one side,’ notes Christie’s Old Masters specialist Jonquil O'Reilly in the above short film, ‘so you’re instantly drawn to that wedding band.’  

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. ‘You can see the pure quality of that fabric from the way that the light bounces off it, it’s so lustrous,’ says the specialist. ‘Van Dyck is an absolute master at recreating these textures.’

‘This portrait really draws you in and makes you think of Mary as a real person and not just a stiff and stately figure’ — Jonquil O’Reilly

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.

‘Although this is a formal and very stately portrait, there is a naturalism to it,’ says O'Reilly. ‘I think it really draws you in and makes you think of her as a real person and not just a stiff, stately figure.’

Van Dyck’s portrait of Mary will be on public view in Hong Kong, 23-26 November, before being shown in London from 1-6 December, ahead of its sale on the evening of 6 December.

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