An Artist, a Colour #3: Van Dyck’s Brown

Ball Philip, Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour,University of Chicago Press, 2001

The Flemish Anton van Dyck was official painter to the court of King Charles I of England and Scotland.
His name has been linked to a brown colour, rather, a brownish gray, which he used to glaze the shadows of his paintings, making them unmistakable. The exact nature of this pigment is still controversial. Was it an organic or inorganic pigment? Or an earth, a mineral oxide or something else?

Van Dyck's selfportrait at twenty years old - Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Van Dyck (whose right flemish name was Antoon van Dijck ) was born in Antwerp in the Flanders region in 1599. His grandfather was a painter and also Anton, showed a precocious talent, so much so that, when he was ten years old, was sent to the studio of Van Balen, a renowned painter and dean of the Guild of Saint Luke, that’s the guild for painters. There he did not stay long: after just a few years, he opened an own studio with his friend Jan Brueghel the Younger.

When he was eighteen, he became pupil of Peter Paul Rubens. This allowed him not only to learn the art from the greatest Baroque painter, but also to be known by the aristocracy and wealthy bourgeoisie. Two years later, he was summoned to the court of England, thanks to the protection of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, art collector and friend of Rubens. He was granted an annual pension and a permit for a study travel abroad for eight months. Van Dyck returned after eleven years, six of which he spent in Italy.

Lomellini Family Portrait

Porträt der Familie Lomellini - National Gallery of Scotland

There, he had the opportunity to study the works of Old Masters, especially Titian (whose works he devoted two hundred pages of his italian sketch-book). He visited the cities of Genoa, Rome, Venice, Florence, Mantua, Milan, Turin and Palermo, host of the local aristocracy, painting many portraits of nobles and clergymen.

In 1632, Van Dyck returned in England, where Charles I, who was a patron of artists and had a passion for Titian’s paintings, appointed him first court painter and knighted him (Sir Anthony Van Dyke). Furthermore, the king gave him a house with garden on the Thames – with servants, carriages and horses – and where, in addition to painting, the flemish painter gave banquets for ladies and knights and the monarch himself.
He joined the group of catholic courtiers, faithful to the queen, he painted several times, individually or in groups, the members’ portraits of the royal family.

Sir Endimion Porter's Portrait with Anton Van Dyck - Museo del Pardo, Madrid

Returning to our initial question concerning the nature of color known as Van Dyck Brown, the very interesting book by Philip Ball, “Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour “, provides us valuable clarification.
Although some authors (and websites) assert the opposite, the Van Dyck Brown was derived from the “Cassel Earth” pigment, from the former name of the German city of Kassel, near which they began to extract it. In reality, it wasn’t an earth, but an organic material, consisting of peat or lignite – a young coal -.

Unlike the painters of the twentieth century, the Old Masters preferred to use colours already tested by tradition. Thus, the use of this pigment is older than van Dyck, and was due to to its characteristic of be dissolved in oil, to create a transparent colour, suitable for glazes. Van Dyck would have learned the use by Rubens, in fact, still in the nineteenth century, this colour was also known as “Rubens Brown“. This last, mixed this pigment with gold ochre, to get a warm brown transparent, resistant to the finish paint.

van dyck brown

Van Dyck Brown

However, the Cassel Earth was not the only brown pigment used by Van Dyck. He made use of tar pigments also, such the “bistro” (from the french “bistre“, wich in turn comes from “bystra“, that’s “soot“), derived from combustion of beech or birch bark. This colour was already used in the fourteenth century by the illuminators of manuscripts, anyway, it was much difficult to use it in oil painting, for its difficulty in wiping and its easy to form cracks.
Already in the Baroque era, the manufacturers of colours were able to obtain substitutes for these pigments, the more stable of the originals, by artificial oxidation of iron. Presently, the Van Dyck Brown is still obtained from Iron Oxide combined with – according to the manufacturer – Carbon Black or Manganese Oxide.

Now, after we wondered “what’s?” this color, is appropriate also to ask “why?

That’s, why a painter who had significant financial resources at its disposal, used a less vibrant – and expensive – colour palette, than the Renaissance’s masters, of which he had also studied the works? Why tone down the colours and glaze the shadows with his characteristic brown? Maybe because he was Flemish, and this was part of his origin pictorial tradition, as we see, for example, in the Rembrandt’s paintings?

van dyck doppio ritratto

Doppio Ritratto, Pinacoteca capitolina, Roma

The answer is not this. Rembrandt, in his later years, lived in economic hardship and the earth pigments were the cheapest (and proven) that he could afford. Rather, we must consider that Van Dyck lived in the Counter-Reformation age, that’s of the Roman Catholic Church’s reaction to the Protestantism. In 1545, the Council of Trent established, among other things, the canons of sacred art. The composition and colours of the paintings and frescoes were to arouse the astonishment of the faithful. These dictates in part influenced the birth of the artistic movement of Mannerism, which made “tabula rasa” of artistic rules of the Old Masters.

In this context, on the one hand, there were artists who embarked on daring experiments – getting some, however, the censorship of the Inquisition – others did so to circumvent the colour problem, obscuring their works with a large amount of shadows and glazes. The example best known is that of Caravaggio.
Van Dyck chose a less drastic way to solve the problem, obtaining results of great elegance. So doing, he also influenced the English painters after him.

Charles I

Equestrian Portrait of Charles I - National Gallery, London

On the death of Rubens in 1640, was offered to Van Dyck’s to direct his studio in Antwerp. About to leave, he received the news that King Louis XIII of France was looking for an artist to decorate the main rooms of the Louvre palace. He then went to Paris, only to discover that the task had been entrusted to Nicolas Poussin. Seriously fell ill, he returned to London. The king sent his personal doctor, but despite this, Van Dyck died in December 1641.
He was buried with full honors in the Saint Paul Cathedral. However, his tomb was destroyed, along with the cathedral, in the Great Fire of 1666.

In December 2009, in London at Sotheby’s, a Van Dyck’s self-portrait, painted just before his death, was sold at auction for 8.3 million pounds. The painting was part of the collection of an aristocratic British family and was one of three english self-portraits by the Flemish master. The buyer is an Austrian collector owner of an art gallery.

Van Dyck Selfportrait - Sotheby's©


About liviusnotes

Architect, Graphic Illustrator, Drawing Teacher, Gentleman.
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