This beautifully-preserved full-length portrait of Princess Mary, eldest daughter of King Charles I of England, and future mother of King William III of England, was one of the last commissions executed by van Dyck, in the summer of 1641, only months before the artist’s premature death at the age of forty-two. It bears many of the hallmarks of his remarkable genius – in the subtle rendering of the sitter’s physiognomy, the masterful depiction of the shimmering drapery, the brilliance of the palette, and the assured draughtsmanship and deft handling of the paint. It represents the culmination of all that van Dyck had learnt from his master, Peter Paul Rubens, and from his Venetian predecessors, notably Titian. By developing his own distinctive style of portraiture, characterised by a calm authority and supreme elegance, van Dyck both revolutionised portraiture in Europe and left a legacy for future generations of artists from Gainsborough and Lawrence, to Sargent and Freud.
Van Dyck made a fleeting visit to England in the winter of 1620-21, having completed his training in Rubens’s studio, but the true advent of his English period began in April 1632, when the painter returned to London at the request of King Charles I. Van Dyck had travelled to Italy in the intervening period, where he studied the work of his great Italian predecessors, Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto, and the wealth of antique sculpture, while undertaking commissions from the country’s wealthy elite. In the process, he rapidly consolidated his reputation as one of the leading artists of his day in Europe. While history and religious painting remained an important aspect of his artistic output, from his earliest work in Antwerp, van Dyck demonstrated a particular flare for portraiture. This talent became increasingly apparent during his time in Italy, as evidenced by the spectacular portraits he executed of the country’s nobility, especially in the city of Genoa, for example his magnificent full-length of a Genoese Noblewoman (fig. 1; c. 1625-27; New York, The Frick Collection). On his return to Antwerp in 1627, he was inundated with commissions from important patrons throughout Europe, including for portraits of the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Spain (fig. 2; Madrid, Museo del Prado), brother of Philip IV, of Isabella Clara Eugenia, Infanta of Spain, (Turin, Galleria Sabauda), governor of the Spanish Netherlands, and of Marie de Medici (Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts), the French Queen-Mother. Alongside these central figures on the European stage, van Dyck also became the portraitist of choice for nobles and courtiers attached to the Hapsburg courts, including the courtier Philippe Le Roy and his wife, whose impressive full-length portraits by van Dyck now hang in the Wallace Collection in London.
Charles I, a passionate collector and patron, had long hoped to attract a painter of such exceptional status and renown to his service, and found in van Dyck an artist not only capable of fulfilling the king’s desire for magnificent portraits and paintings, but also one who shared his own tastes, especially for Venetian pictures. In July 1632, van Dyck was appointed ‘Principal Painter in Ordinary to their Majesties’. This position effectively gave van Dyck a monopoly over portraits ‘in large’ of the King and Queen, and by May 1633, he had already produced nine portraits of his new patrons. The style, refinement and brilliance of van Dyck’s portraits was unprecedented in England: previously, British portraiture had conformed to a strict convention of rigid postures, unblinking gazes and meticulous attention to details of costume, jewellery and ornament. Van Dyck, however, instilled in his sitters a new sense of vitality and movement and his bravura technique allowed him to enliven the entire surface of his works with light, assured dashes of paint, as exemplified in the present portrait. Through the invention of such works, the painter created enduring images of grace, elegance and power.
This portrait was executed soon after the Princess Royal’s marriage to Prince William of Orange (1626–1650) on 2 May 1641. Sir Oliver Millar identified the work as one of two portraits of the sitter that are mentioned in a letter, dated 13 August 1641, from the Countess of Roxburghe, the Princess’s governess, to Jan de Brederode, one of the Ambassadors Extraordinary from the States- General to London (ibid., p. 556). In the letter, the Countess writes that van Dyck’s poor health had delayed the completion of the portraits, which were due to be sent to the court at The Hague. Millar noted that the second portrait is likely to be that now in the Royal Collection (ibid., p. 558, no. IV.164).
Sir Oliver described the present portrait as ‘of excellent quality’ and certainly the finer of the two, with the head revealing ‘clear signs of having been painted from life’ (ibid., p. 556). He noted the characteristic aura or distinct change of tone around the head of the sitter, the ‘very crisp handling of the little girl’s rich chestnut curls’ (loc. cit.), and the delicacy and lightness of touch in the detail of the costume and shadows cast by her hands. Sir Oliver recorded a copy of this type under his entry for the Royal Collection picture, ‘almost certainly painted in the studio’, at Courteenhall; and ‘another, less good’ in the Government Art Collection, London (ibid., p. 559, under no. IV. 164). The picture in the Royal Collection is now itself considered by scholars to be a studio repetition.
The artist 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). She was later painted with her siblings for three of the artist’s most celebrated child group portraits: The Three Eldest Children of Charles I, painted in 1635 and now in the Galleria Sabauda, Turin (fig. 3); The Three Eldest Children of Charles I (1636; The Royal Collection); and the magnificent Five Eldest Children of Charles I (1637; The Royal Collection). The earliest single portraits of Princess Mary, which show her full-length in a blue dress, with her hands linked together across her stomach – a pose that echoes van Dyck’s earlier portraits of her mother – were painted in or before 1637, and are now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and at Hampton Court (ibid., pp. 556-7, nos. IV.161 and IV.162). Four years later, she sat again to van Dyck with her fifteen-year-old husband, Prince William of Orange, for the double portrait now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (fig. 4).
In both the present work and in the Rijksmuseum double portrait, Mary is shown wearing her wedding ring and the large diamond brooch given to her by her husband on 3 May 1641, the day after their marriage. Jewellers had yet to discover methods of cutting and setting diamonds in ways that would exploit the refraction light and produce the sparkling effect that they are recognised for today. Instead, diamonds were admired more for their hardness than their brilliance and were often backed with foil to enhance their colour, hence their black appearance in this portrait. Her spectacular coral gown, decorated with silver thread trim along its border, is thought to be similar to that worn for her wedding, rather than the cloth of silver-gold she wears in the Rijksmuseum picture. The apparent weight of the fabric, falling in broad, heavy folds, along with the bright highlights along the creases, suggest the fabric may have been cloth of silver. The characteristic sheen of cloth of silver was notoriously difficult to capture in paint but, given its value, it was essential it be accurately represented. Shimmering highlights, applied in swift, cross-hatched strokes, were used as a form of shorthand by artists, mimicking the lustre of metallic threads as the textile caught the light. In accordance with the fashion of the period, her gown is open down the front, revealing a stiffened stomacher across the chest and a matching skirt beneath. The ribbons, which would at one time have been functional, lacing the skirt and stomacher to the bodice, were applied purely as adornment. One ribbon, however has been pinned or stitched flat to disguise the seam between the bodice and skirt. Details such as the Princess’s brooch, the string of pearls and ribbons on her shimmering dress are rendered with remarkable precision and delicacy, characteristics that defined the artist’s finest late works. This composition, which is dominated by the Princess’s sumptuous pink gown, foreshadows the celebrated portraits of King Philip IV’s children painted in the following decade by Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), van Dyck’s rival as the greatest court painter of the seventeenth century.
Princess Mary was born on 4 November 1631 at St. James’s Palace, the eldest daughter of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria. She was baptized on the same day by William Laud, Bishop of London. On 2 May 1641, at the age of nine, she was married to William II, son of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange and Amalia von Solms, at the Chapel Royal, Whitehall Palace. Mary remained in England for a year after the marriage, eventually following her husband to Holland in 1642, accompanied by her mother and a train of four hundred courtiers. In March 1647, William II succeeded his father as Stadholder of the Dutch Republic and Mary became Princess of Orange. Her new position at court, however, caused conflict with her mother-in-law. The ill health which Frederick Henry had suffered between 1640 and his death in 1647 had meant that Amalia had effectively ruled as Regent and Stadtholder during this time. Mary’s appearance at court seems to have represented something of a challenge to her mother-in-law, with one of Mary's ladies allegedly saying that ‘it was time the princess should run the country’, since Amalia had done so for so long.
In November 1650, following his failed attempt to capture Amsterdam from his political opponents, William II died of smallpox. Eight days later, Mary gave birth to a son, the future William III of England. His baptism saw the rivalry between Mary and Amalia erupt once again: despite Mary’s desire to christen her child Charles, in honour of her father, Amalia insisted that he be called William. Mary’s position in Holland became increasingly precarious during her widowhood. She was obliged to share the guardianship of her infant son and the Regency of Holland with Amalia, and her uncle-in-law Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg. Amalia was reported to be ‘hateful of all things English’ and Mary’s continuous support of the Royalist cause in England provoked considerable hostility at court. This was no doubt exacerbated by her brothers, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, who had come to The Hague in 1648 and 1649, where they borrowed large sums of money from her husband. Indeed, after the Anglo-Dutch war, which had begun in 1652, was concluded by a peace treaty in May 1654, all ‘enemies’ of Parliamentarian England were banned from the Netherlands, thus forbidding Mary to welcome her brothers on Dutch soil again. After the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne in 1660, Mary’s position changed dramatically for the better in the Netherlands. She returned to her homeland in September of Charles’s coronation year, where, after a short illness with smallpox, she died at Whitehall on 24 December.
Identified by Sir Oliver Millar as one of two portraits commissioned from van Dyck for the court at The Hague, this painting would originally have formed part of the prestigious collection of the Princes of Orange, Stadtholders of the United Provenances of the Netherlands. It would likely have been displayed in one of their principal palaces, possibly at Binnenhof Palace in The Hague (fig. 5), where Princess Mary lived with her husband William, alongside works by many of the principal Dutch and Flemish painters of the seventeenth century. William II of Orange’s father, Frederick Hendrick, was a renowned collector and patron of the arts, and he employed many of the leading painters of his day - his collection including Rembrandt’s Presentation in the Temple, Rubens and Jan Brueghel’s The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man and Paulus Potter’s monumental The Young Bull (The Hague, Mauritshuis). Following Frederick Hendrick’s example, the collections of the Princes of Orange grew over successive generations and they were eventually displayed to the public upon the opening of the Galerij Prins Willem V in 1774. The works displayed there ultimately formed the core of the Mauritshuis collection in The Hague, which opened in 1822. Prior to the opening of Willem V’s gallery, some of the collection was dispersed amongst the numerous palaces of the Stadtholder, with notable works being sent to the Palace of Huis ten Bosch in The Hague and later to Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn.
Inventories of the collections of the Dutch Stadtholders from the mid-seventeenth until the end of the eighteenth century, record a number of portraits of Princess Mary, however, many of the entries do not specify the artist’s name. The only portrait of her listed explicitly as by van Dyck was recorded in the collection of her mother-in-law, Amalia von Solms, at Huis ten Bosch, in 1654 as: ‘Een schilderije van princesse royale, mede bij Van Dijck gedaen’, hanging close to van Dyck’s double portrait of William II and Mary, now in the Rijksmuseum. In addition to the two portraits of the sitter by van Dyck cited in the Countess of Roxburghe’s letter of 1641 (see above), a third van Dyck portrait of Princess Mary is known to have been in The Hague by 1654. This was a painting of circa 1637, which was given by Charles I to Katherine, Lady d’Aubigny, in a letter written while the king was under arrest at Hampton Court in November 1647. Following Lady d’Aubigny’s relocation to The Hague and her death in 1650, that painting entered the Dutch Statholders’s collection and later passed to Amalia von Solms’s eldest daughter, Princess Louisa Henrietta and her husband, Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, and in turn to their son, Frederick I, King of Prussia, in 1720. That painting was in the Hohenzollern collection until the early twentieth century and now hangs at Hampton Court (ibid., p. 556, no. IV.162). Sir Oliver linked the reference in the 1654 inventory of Amalia von Solms’s collection at Huis ten Bosch with the portrait now at Hampton Court, however, given the brevity of the description it is quite possible that it in fact referred to either of the other two portraits. Amongst the numerous other references to portraits of the Princess in the inventories is a picture listed at the Oranienstein Palace in 1695 as item 1056, which may also refer to the present painting, however, once again the description is too brief to be certain: ‘2 grosze stücke presentirend printz Wilhelm der 2te von Oranien und desen frau, die princessin royale, in lebensgrösze’ (‘2 large pieces presenting Prince William II of Orange and his wife, the Princess Royal, in life size’; S.W.A. Drozzaers and T.H. Lunsingh Scheurleer, eds., Inventarissen van de Inboedels in de Verblijven van de Oranjes en daarmede gelijk te stellen stukken 1567-1795, ’s-Gravenhage, 1974, II, p. 191).
While the present painting certainly seems to have been intended for the court of William II, it remains unclear as to precisely where it would have hung and when it might have left the collection. Like many of the great European royal collections, the Stadtholder’s collection was subject to changes, either through sale, exchange or theft. For instance, the collections of William III (1650-1702) at the Het Loo palace were sold at auction in 1713. This sale came about after the Stadtholder had died without a direct heir. William had named his cousin, Johan Willem Friso of Nassau-Dietz, as his sole successor in the Netherlands, however, parts of his art collection were claimed by Frederick I of Prussia, William’s cousin, and also by Queen Anne, his successor in England. Acting as executors of William III’s will, the States-General tried to safeguard his appointed heir’s interests against the Prussian and English claims. This portrait of Princess Mary was not included in the 1713 sale catalogue, however, nor did it make up one of the paintings claimed by the English crown (see K. Jonckheere, ‘“When the Cabinet from Het Loo was sold”: The Auction of William III's Collection of Paintings, 26 July 1713’, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, XXXI, 2004-2005, pp. 192-215). Another major dispersal of the collections occurred when a large group of works were confiscated by Napoleon and transported to his Musée Central des Arts in Paris, in 1794 (see F. Boyer, ‘Une conquête artistique de la Convention: les tableaux du Stathouder (1795)’, Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de l’Art Français, 1970, pp. 153-157). Many of the pictures were eventually returned, but some remained in France. Van Dyck’s portrait of the Princess Royal does not appear to have been part of the group seized by Napoleon’s forces. Despite a lack of documentary evidence concerning the present work’s history, it is clear that paintings from the Stadtholders’s collection did move frequently and in several notable instances were dispersed or sold.
Heralded as one of the greatest artists of the Northern Baroque, along with Rubens, van Dyck’s art both defined his age and created a legacy for future generations of artists throughout Europe. During the eighteenth century, van Dyck was held as a model for excellence in portraiture. Freely applied paint and a fluidity of handling were deemed to be the mark of the painter’s genius, as it was with Titian and Rubens before him. Thomas Gainsborough employed such a technique throughout his mature work in a conscious effort to recall the work of earlier masters. His famous The Blue Boy (fig. 6; San Marino, Huntington Library), painted in circa 1770, represents the culmination of his emulation of van Dyck’s work: the sitter is shown in seventeenth-century costume and his pose is modelled closely on van Dyck’s 1637 portrait of Charles II in his painting of The Five Eldest Children of Charles I (Royal Collection).
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Flemish artist’s work continued to exert a formative influence on the development of portraiture. Sir Thomas Lawrence employed the dynamic handling of paint to represent fabrics and textiles, clearly referencing van Dyck’s full-length portrait of Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle (private collection) in his own portrait of Lady Frances Vane-Tempest, Marchioness of Londonderry and her son George, Viscount Seaham (fig. 7; Mount Stewart, County Down). Later in the century, Franz Xaver Winterhalter, van Dyck’s successor as the greatest portraitist of his day at numerous European courts, emphasised his debt to the Flemish painter with portraits such as Madame de Jurjewicz (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts). The sitter’s billowing satin dress is painted with a brilliance and speed that can only have been inspired by the seventeenth-century master’s example, and the sitter’s graceful pose and easy manner convey a van Dyckian sense of authority and elegance. Perhaps the greatest nineteenth-century exponent of van Dyck’s enduring influence, however, was John Singer Sargent, whose portraits, like those of van Dyck, came to define their era. The stylish elegance, rapidly painted drapery and air of intimate refinement employed in his portrait of the Parisian Doctor Pozzi at Home (fig. 8; Los Angeles, The Hammer Museum) was extolled by Henry James in 1887 as possessing all the ‘prestance [sic.] of certain figures by Vandyck’.
Some of the greatest figurative painters of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, notably Lucian Freud, also returned to the traditions established by van Dyck, and the lucid brushwork and informal authority of works such as Freud’s imposing Brigadier (fig. 9; private collection, sold Christie’s, New York, 10 November 2015, lot 31b) retain all the essential hallmarks and qualities that assure van Dyck his position as one of the greatest and most significant portrait painters in Western art.
Commissioned to celebrate the crucial alliance between the British crown and the House of Orange, this intimate ad vivum portrait, the only fully autograph portrait of the type, is remarkable for its royal provenance, the superb quality of its draughtsmanship and its exceptional condition. It is one of the most important European Royal Portraits to come to auction for a generation.