The art of a king

The treasures of Charles I’s art collection, which were sold off after his death on the orders of Oliver Cromwell, are to be reunited for the first time since the 17th century, at a Royal Academy of Arts exhibition. Assistant curator Lucy Chiswell tells Charlotte Hodgman what eight of these artworks reveal about the king

A painting of Charles I on horseback.

This article was first published in the January 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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A mythological masterpiece

Cupid and Psyche by Anthony van Dyck, 1639–40

“Portraiture was perhaps the most common genre of art in 17th-century England, particularly at the royal court,” says Lucy Chiswell. “This was reflected in the career of Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck, who became court painter to Charles I in 1632.”

Van Dyck created several portraits of Charles and the royal family. But his true artistic love was of the mythological and narrative paintings of the Italian Renaissance. So he would have particularly relished painting this interpretation of the legend of Cupid and Psyche for the Queen’s House at Greenwich.

“This work is a beautiful mix of Italian and English influences,” Chiswell explains. “The oak tree that dominates the piece places the painting firmly in England, but the reclining nude, Arcadian landscape and billowing drapery is reminiscent of one of Charles and Van Dyck’s favourite Renaissance artists, Titian.”

Cupid and Psyche is the only surviving mythological painting from Van Dyck’s employment as Charles’s court artist. It fetched £110 when the collection was broken up and sold off between 1649 and 1651.


The human monarch

Le Roi à la Chasse (Charles I in the Hunting Field) by Anthony van Dyck, 1636

This painting of Charles I at the hunt is arguably Van Dyck’s most personal portrait of the king. Set against a traditional English landscape, Charles has dismounted from his horse and looks directly out at the viewer. He is dressed for the hunt, rather than in full royal regalia, which makes him appear softer – an altogether more human figure.

“Little is known about the provenance of this painting,” says Chiswell. “It is not listed in the inventory of artworks at Whitehall Palace, drawn up in 1639 by Abraham van der Doort, keeper of Charles’s pictures, so we don’t know where it hung. But we do know that it ended up in France.

“Given its personal nature, it was perhaps painted for Charles’s wife, Henrietta Maria, who may have taken it to the continent when she fled England in 1644 during the Civil War.”


The lure of the strong man

The Triumph of Caesar: The Vase Bearers by Andrea Mantegna, c1485–1506

In the late 1620s, Charles I’s art collection was given a huge boost when he acquired a large proportion of Italy’s famous Gonzaga art collection. The works had been amassed by six generations of Mantuan dukes but financial difficulties forced them to sell many of the collection’s finest pieces.

The Triumph of Caesar – a series of nine canvases depicting the Roman statesman returning from an imaginary campaign – was considered the cream of the Gonzaga collection,” Chiswell notes. “Charles sent an agent to Italy and bought all nine pieces – as well as works by Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian and others.”

Ownership of Mantegna’s masterpieces set Charles up as a true connoisseur of art and he became the envy of European collectors. But the purchase was not celebrated in England – for, while Charles was spending thousands on Gonzaga artworks, he was imposing a loan of £250,000 on his own people, following parliament’s refusal to grant him taxation in 1626.

“Caesar was seen as the archetypal ruler and both the Gonzagas and Charles I attached a great deal of significance to Mantegna’s work,” says Chiswell. “The ceremonial scenes of elephants and trumpeters, chariots and crowds seem to have struck a chord with Oliver Cromwell, too, and so he retained them for the nation at the Commonwealth Sale. All nine will be on show in the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition, on loan as a full set for the first time.”


Love at first sight

The Supper at Emmaus Titian, c1534

This painting, which depicts Jesus breaking bread with two disciples after his resurrection, also came to England as part of the Gonzaga acquisition. It hung in the First Privy Lodging at Whitehall, in a room containing only works by Titian.

Charles I fell in love with European art – and, most especially, the works of Titian – in 1623 during a visit to Spain to discuss a possible marriage with the Spanish princess, Maria Anna. Charles failed to win the Spanish princess, but during his time in Madrid, he was introduced to the magnificent Habsburg art collection.

“Charles’s time in Spain opened his eyes to the art of the Italian Renaissance – rare in England at this time – and kickstarted a life-long love of Titian,” explains Chiswell. “The Supper at Emmaus sold for £600 at the Commonwealth Sale. Later, it was purchased by Louis XIV of France.”


A vision of beauty

Aphrodite (‘The Crouching Venus’) Second century AD

Another important piece in the Gonzaga acquisition was this Roman marble statue of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty.

“This is one of several Roman copies of a now lost Hellenistic sculpture,” says Chiswell. “It was described by Charles’s agent, Daniel Nijs, as the most beautiful of all [the Gonzaga antiquities].

“During his time sourcing artworks in Mantua for the king, Nijs recorded some as drawings to send back to Charles in England (we still have Nijs’s rather crude interpretation of Aphrodite). These will also be on show in the exhibition.”

Peter Lely – future court painter to Charles’s son, Charles II, who was restored to the throne in 1660 – acquired the statue soon after the Commonwealth Sale. However, it was eventually returned to the royal collection in 1682.


A projection of power

Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine by Anthony van Dyck, 1633

Van Dyck’s most famous paintings of Charles depict him on horseback, portraying a mighty ruler, ready for battle.

“This huge painting hung floor-to-ceiling at the end of the gallery at St James’s Palace,” says Chiswell. “The dramatic impact of the king beneath a triumphal arch, striding towards the viewer, would have made quite an impact on visitors.

“Equestrian paintings were a motif of power that can be traced back to portraits of [the Roman emperor] Marcus Aurelius. Charles was keen to portray himself as a strong ruler but, in reality, he had been a weak, sickly child who was never meant to be king [his elder brother had died when Charles was 11].”


Naked temptation

Adam and Eve by Jan Gossaert, c1520

In 1636, the Dutch states sought to curry favour with Charles I, whom they deemed to be too sympathetic to their enemies, the Spanish. That same year, they sent the king this depiction of Adam and Eve by Jan Gossaert, a French-speaking artist from the Low Countries.

“Charles’s art collection boasted a number of northern European works,” says Chiswell. “Many of these were gifts, or inherited from his predecessors, and aren’t necessarily indicative of his own taste in art.

“Gossaert’s painting was very different to the billowing drapery and sensuous nudes of Italian works of the same era. It sold for £50 at the Commonwealth Sale.”


Hunting queen

Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson by Anthony van Dyck, 1633

Of all the artworks in the Royal Academy exhibition, none capture the importance of Charles’s wife Henrietta Maria better than this beautiful portrait by Van Dyck. The queen, dressed for the hunt, is shown with her servant, the dwarf Jeffrey Hudson, and monkey, Pug.

“Henrietta Maria had strong ties with the papal court, which sent several paintings to the king and queen in 1637,” remarks Chiswell. “She was also an important patron of art, employing influential painters such as Orazio Gentileschi, who came to England in 1626, bringing with him a new style of Italian baroque painting.”

Lucy Chiswell is assistant curator at the Royal Academy of Arts

Exhibition: Charles I: King and Collector is on show at the Royal Academy between 27 January and 15 April royalacademy.org.uk

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Television: Treasures Reunited: Charles I at the Royal Academy is due to air on BBC Two soon as part of a Royal Collection season that also includes a BBC Four series entitled Art, Passion & Power: The Story of the Royal Collection