Lace has long been associated with luxury and elegance, and it was a popular accessory in the fashion of the elite during the 16th and 17th centuries. In portraiture, lace was often used to convey status and convey the wealth and importance of the sitter. Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck was a master of painting lace collars in his portraits, and his technique for depicting this delicate fabric was both accurate and painterly.
Flemish and English bobbin lace was very suitable for the wide flat collars seen in the portraiture of Anthony van Dyck in the 1630s and 40s. Van Dyck’s painted lace collars are accurate but much more painterly depicted than the lace painting of artists such as Hilliard and Larkin, with visible brush marks and less detail. In contrast to the linear and open patterned cutwork and needle lace featured in paintings from the early seventeenth century, the Flemish bobbin lace seen in Van Dyck’s portraits is notably denser, making it impractical to depict every individual thread in paint. The viewer’s comprehension of the lace no longer relies on an entirely precise and detailed rendering of its structure and pattern. Like a fabric, lace could now be painted according to the methods and techniques of painting drapery, a subject matter extensively explored by continental Renaissance artists, for whom light and shade created form and texture. Van Dyck painted the gracefulness of lace with a painterly nonchalance yet accurate eye for detail, thereby creating a painter’s version of Castiglione’s concept of sprezzatura, hiding the artfulness of the work by a seeming ease of brush work.1
An example of Van Dyck’s portraiture is the oil study of King Charles I, which portrays Charles from three different angles (1635-6).2 It was commissioned to be sent to Bernini in Rome who was asked to create a marble bust of the king. The three angles were no doubt intended to help the sculptor get a likeness without being able to have live sittings. Van Dyck did not paint the same clothing three times over but included three different lace collars and was accurate in his depiction of the varying patterns of the lace.3
The left collar has a floral design with many rounded petals and curling branches. Each scallop has a central floral motif, surrounded by an oval band. The middle portrait shows a more pointed scalloped collar, with larger free flowing bell-shaped flowers and alternating designs. One scallop is finished at its tip with two bigger leaves with a smaller leaf in the middle, the other has a larger floral motif in the tip which is a little less easily discerned. The portrait on the right also has alternating scallop designs, one finished off with a star-shaped flower, and the other with a leaf design. The consistent representation of different lace patterns does not prove Van Dyck accurately copied existing lace collars, but it strongly suggests his depictions are accurate.
The technique used by Van Dyck to paint these lace collars differs from the techniques used by artists such as Hilliard, Larkin, or Johnson. This is partly due to the different character of bobbin lace which had not been fully explored by Johnson. On a grey underpainting Van Dyck painted the patterns of the lace in a white paint. The grey underpainting does not represent the clothing underneath, as it did in the work of Larkin or Johnson. In Van Dyck’s work the grey underpainting represents the lace ‘fabric’ itself and the white paint depicts the patterns inside it. In a simplified approach, Van Dyck left out the small bridging threads Johnson painted accurately in between the solid parts of the pattern. He used a wider brush than his predecessors as he did not paint every thread of the design. Flowers and petals are created by a single brush stroke and positioned accurately.
Extensive shading is used to suggest the gentle draping of the lace over the shoulders. This shading technique is applied most strongly in the left and centre collars, where the figures cast shadows over the lace. Bright white highlights provide a hint of a shimmer on the edges of the scallops, the shoulder, and neck, while shading and smudging fades the lace patterns away from the viewer gaze.
The clothing underneath the lace collars is only visible in small dabs of colour, suggesting the 'holes’ or ‘negative space’ in the lace. Some small red brush marks in the central collar, especially in the front centre scallops, were added on top and after the white lace was painted, enhancing the transparent effect of the lace. The same technique was applied in the other two lace collars. Instead of painting the white lace on top of a dried, slightly darker underlayer representing the clothing underneath, Van Dyck painted the coloured clothing underneath as negative space on top of the dried white paint. This reversal of technique naturally followed out of the change in lace making techniques.4
A lace collar worn by James Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox in a portrait by Van Dyck from 1633-35 and now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, bears a striking resemblance to the lace collar in Charles’ portrait on the right of the triple portrait.5 It not only seems to be the same collar, it was also painted at nearly the same angle, with the sitters’ left shoulder towards the viewer. 6 The portrait of the duke was probably painted shortly before the triple portrait of Charles. The comparison raises the question whether Van Dyck owned this collar, had lent it to the duke, and decided to paint it again, or, as the similar angle suggests, the collar belongs to the duke and Van Dyck worked from a study or sketch created for the duke’s portrait. Another possibility is Van Dyck simply copied the duke’s painted collar as both these portraits might have been in the studio at the same time around 1635.
The draped collars in the Van Dyck portrait are all decorated with bobbin lace, recognisable by its density and lack of open work, and the more rounded, fluid, and free flowing patterns of the twisted and woven threads. An example of a bobbin lace collar like the ones Charles’ is wearing in his triple portrait, is kept at the Rijksmuseum (see image below). While the patterns are not identical it provides a sense of what a large bobbin lace collar would have looked like.
Van Dyck's lace collars are a testament to his skill as a painter, accurately representing the patterns and textures of the lace while also utilizing the techniques and methods of painting drapery. They are a stunning and unique aspect of his portraiture that should not be overlooked.
- Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, George Bull (transl.) (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 114; Emilie Gordenker, ‘The Rhetoric of Dress in Seventeenth Century Dutch and Flemish Portraiture’, The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 57 (1999), p. 97.
- Anthony van Dyck, Portraits of Charles I, oil on canvas, c. 1635-1636, Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 404420.
- Ribeiro, Fashion and Fiction, p. 96. Although the accuracy in the lace patterns might have been because of the portrait’s intended use, Van Dyck shows an equal sense of accurate (but simplified) detail in his other works. See for example Hearn, Van Dyck & Britain, cats. 44, 65.
- Marieke de Winkel, ‘The Artist as Couturier: The ‘Portrayal’ of Clothing in the Golden Age’, in Dutch Portraits. The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals, ed. by Rudi Ekkart and Quentin Buvelot (Zwolle: Waanders, 2007), p. 71.
- Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of James Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox, oil on canvas, c. 1633-35, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Ac. Nr: 89.15.16; Hearn, Van Dyck & Britain, p. 90, cat. 31.
- I am grateful to a helpful reader for pointing out the near identical angle and the suggestions for the reoccurrence of the same collar in both portraits.