Van Dyck was Charles I’s right-hand artist from 1632 on, painting hundreds of portraits of the king; his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria; and their growing brood. Charles had already demonstrated a particular taste for Northern European portraiture, owning several by such artists as
and Holbein, so his appointment of Van Dyck as court painter wasn’t exactly surprising. But Van Dyck—an accomplished portraitist in his homeland—eschewed the English court’s traditional, formalized portrait aesthetic in favor of a lighthearted, poetic naturalism that reflected the king’s own unique tastes.
Take The Five Eldest Children of Charles I (1637), which hung in his private breakfast room. Here, the young royal offspring appear far older in their luxurious silk attire. Yet they are simultaneously dwarfed by the family’s massive Mastiff, where Prince Charles II rests his small, seven-year-old hand; to his left, Van Dyck inserted his infant sister Princess Anne, flailing around like all babies do. Van Dyck had embedded an element of youthful play—suggesting that, while these may be royal kids, they’re still kids.
In 1639, a courtier named Abraham van der Doort completed his inventory of Charles I’s collection. At this point, the king owned at least 700 works—a number that would swell to almost 2,000 by the end of his reign. But the following decade would spell the end for Charles, as a series of wars broke out between England and Scotland. By 1642, his nation was embroiled in a civil war. After surrendering to the Scots, Charles I forged a secret alliance with the victors in attempt to overpower the group that defeated the Royalists in the civil war—resulting in a second civil war in 1648, where the king’s army again lost. The following January, Charles I was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death.
Months after the king was beheaded in front of his Rubens-filled Banqueting House, nearly all of his collection was auctioned off in a series of so-called Commonwealth Sales. Unsurprisingly, Italian artists like Raphael and Titian were among the most highly valued from his holdings. Van Dyck and Holbein fared better overall than their northern counterparts, who generally commanded smaller figures.