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Charles I: Art & Politics

posted on 31/01/18

The Royal Academy’s Charles I: King & Collector exhibition is undoubtedly a triumph. Generous loans from the Royal Collection, National Gallery, Prado and Louvre are reunited to celebrate the collection of a man described by Rubens himself as “the greatest amateur [lover] of paintings among the princes of the world”.

However, the link between this stupendous art collection and its contemporary events goes beyond its tragic auction by Oliver Cromwell in 1649 following Charles’ execution, in order to fund the new government of the English Commonwealth. It offers an insight into the psyche of a monarch whose utter conviction in his absolute and divine right to rule was to turn his subjects against each other and; ultimately, bring about his own downfall.

The King & Collector exhibition is a unique opportunity to peer behind the curtain at a monarch who had become detached from reality. There is no better place to start than with the exhibition’s various depictions of the king himself. Charles was said to be very insecure about his height, evidently feeling that it undermined his authority as ruler. This fact becomes especially apparent in Anthony van Dyck’s two equestrian portraits, where the great Flemish painter enlists every trick in his artistic arsenal to make the slight king look imposing and regal; including viewing him upwards from ground level and exaggerating the size of his stallion to near-comic effect. One only has to look at the nearby Mytens portrait of a younger Charles in 1628 to see a more realistic portrayal of a man who fails to fill out his elaborate outfit.


Sir Anthony van Dyck, Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, National Gallery, London. | Titian, Charles V at Mühlberg, Museo del Prado, Madrid.


These paintings can also be seen as instruments of political aggrandisement, emphasizing Charles’ strength as a sole ruler. The image of a horse is in itself a motif; the king's assured control of his mount symbolises a secure command over his nation. Van Dyck’s later equestrian portrait [1637] borrows heavily from Titian’s Charles V at Mühlberg [1548] (both shown above), where the Holy Roman Emperor is painted as a hero entering battle, while its earlier counterpart [1633] shows Charles posing within a triumphal arch; the height of theatre and a far cry from Holbein's stunning yet static Tudor portraits. Even more revealing is a painting of the king and his family, also by Van Dyck. Charles is illuminated in front of a large column like a Roman Emperor, while Westminster and the Houses of Parliament are black and distant, as if an irrelevance to the main event. When one considers that this was produced during Charles’ eleven-year period of Personal Rule without recourse to Parliament, its message becomes all too evident.


Andrea Mantegna, Triumph of Caesar: The Vase Bearers, c. 1484–92. Tempera on canvas, 269.5 x 280 cm. RCIN 403961. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017


Three works that Charles purchased during his reign offer further glimpses into his mind-set and self-image. The first, and probably the most impressive aspect of this event, is Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, seen above [1484–92]. Displayed on nine monumental panels around the Royal Academy’s largest gallery and eerily lit, one almost feels that the career of Julius Caesar is premonitory of Charles’ final destination, a (quasi) monarch who flew too high and suffered the brutal consequences. As it is, it gives us an idea of the kind of leaders that the king wished to emulate, displayed with nearby portraits of Emperor Charles V and the famed condottiero (military leader) Alfonso d’Avalos painted by Titian; the King’s favourite artist.

A conclusion to draw from this exhibition is that, apart from having a keen eye for fine art, Charles’ obsession with collecting was just as much a reflection of his own egotism and desire to flaunt his power. This is something that would likely have alienated him still further from his subjects, who were already growing increasingly disillusioned with the heavy taxation of the 1630s; a sizeable portion of which would have funded the king’s extravagant art commissions and purchases.

As he walked to his execution on 30 January 1649, Charles I passed under Whitehall Palace's spectacular Banqueting House ceiling that he had commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to paint 13 years earlier – Cromwell and his associates might well have viewed this as poetic justice. 


By Miles Rowland, Digital Marketing Assistant


Main image caption: Anthony van Dyck, Charles I, 1635-6 . Oil on canvas, 84.4 x 99.4 cm. RCIN 404420. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017


Our Charles I: King and Collector London Day visits the exhibition following three talks; by exhibition curators Dr Per Rumberg and Dr Desmond Shawe-Taylor, as well as historian Leanda de Lisle, author of acclaimed Charles I biography White King. It is currently fully booked, but please contact our office to join the waiting list.


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