The Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Charles I (1600-1649)
The painting was probably begun in the second half of 1635. In his letter to Lorenzo Bernini of 17 March 1636 the King expressed the hope that Bernini would execute ‘il Nostro Ritratto in Marmo, sopra quello che in un Quadro vi manderemo subiito’ (‘Our Portrait in Marble, after the painted portrait which we shall send to you immediately’). The bust was to be a papal present to Henrietta Maria and Urban VIII had specially arranged its creation at a time when hopes were entertained in Rome that the King might lead England back into the Roman Catholic fold.
The bust was executed in the summer of 1636 and presented to the King and Queen at Oatlands on 17 July 1637. It was enthusiastically received by them and their court and universally admired ‘not only for the exquisiteness of the worke but the likenese and nere resemblance it had to the King countenaunce’. Bernini was rewarded in 1638 with a diamond ring valued at £800. The bust was destroyed in the fire at Whitehall Palace in 1698.
The heads in the painting are drawn and modelled with a care and restraint unusual in Van Dyck. The contrast between the blue Garter ribbon and the three different colours of the King’s costume, which include three differently patterned lace collars; in the richly worked sky all contribute to turning a utilitarian commission into a work of great beauty.
Van Dyck had presumably been influenced by Lotto’s 'Portrait of a Man in Three Positions' (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), which was in Charles I’s collection at this time. The King’s portrait in turn probably influenced Philippe de Champaigne, who in 1642 painted a 'Triple Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu' (London, National Gallery) to assist Bernini (or another sculptor) with a bust of the Cardinal.