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Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)

Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Mary 1631-32

Oil on canvas | 303.8 x 256.5 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 405353

In an exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts [London]

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This was Van Dyck's first commission following his appointment as Court Painter to Charles I in 1632. It shows Charles and his Queen, Henrietta Maria of France, with their two eldest children: Prince Charles, later King Charles II, standing before his father and Princess Mary in her mother's arms. In the background we glimpse a silhouetted view of Parliament House, Westminster Hall and possibly the Clock Tower.

The painting was known as The Greate Peece at the time and Charles hung it prominently in the Palace at Whitehall. What sets the picture apart from other paintings of the period is the apparently effortless way in which Van Dyck seemed able to combine the formal demands of official state portraiture with the informalities of family domesticity. Its size, the acres of shimmering silk and the grand classical column lend the image official gravity. Yet at the same time the King and Queen are seated, Charles has placed his crown on one side and two tiny dogs play between the royal couple. The composition is in essence, a royal conversation piece of a kind that was to be perfected by Johann Zoffany in the mid-18th century.

The influences that are at work in such a painting reveal the true level of Van Dyck as an artist. Only Rubens and Velazquez treated royal sitters with such apparent nonchalance and insight, while the warm colours and dramatic sky bespeak a profound knowledge of Titian. It is interesting to note that the condition of the painting gave cause for concern as early as 1676 because Van Dyck had applied an unusual priming to the canvas.

An oil-sketch for this painting is also in the Royal Collection - RCIN 408584.