National Gallery Technical Bulletin Volume 20, 1999: Painting in Antwerp and London: Rubens and Van Dyck

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National Gallery Technical Bulletin Volume 20, 1999: Painting in Antwerp and London: Rubens and Van Dyck

The Painter's Trade in the Seventeenth Century: Theory and Practice

Jo Kirby

The Careers of Peter Paul Rubens and his most talented assistant, Anthony van Dyck, unfolded during a period of relative prosperity in Antwerp. The city no longer had the total commercial dominance it had had some fifty years earlier, but it had recovered from a period of violent struggle and economic collapse. This, together with the powerful stimulus of the Counter-Reformation, created a constant demand for the production of art works and architectural projects. There was plenty of work to be had at home and, although the reputation of Rubens was such that he could command the highest prices, many other artists also prospered: Jacob Jordaens, for example, born into already comfortable circumstances, died an extremely wealthy man owning much property after a long and successful career. However, to a greater extent than their compatriots, Rubens and Van Dyck also had an international aspect to their careers and, in addition, much of their work was for royal or court patrons. Rubens worked for aristocratic patrons in Mantua, Rome and other Italian cities, as well as for the courts of Spain, France, England and the Spanish Netherlands itself, in Brussels. Van Dyck worked in Genoa and Rome, in Brussels and in London. Indeed, the influence of Van Dyck's style and techniques on English painting cannot be overstated. Both artists were enormously prolific and could not have produced such a vast quantity of work without studio assistance; this is particularly true of Rubens, who is known to have maintained a large studio, and whose level of production is all the more astonishing when it is remembered that between 1626 and 1630 he also had a busy and successful diplomatic career.

From a technical point of view, any painting must be considered in the context of where it was produced and what materials or methods were used. In the case of Van Dyck, who worked abroad for long periods of time, it may be possible to assess the extent of the variation between the materials available in one centre and in another. The National Gallery is fortunate in that the work of both Van Dyck and Rubens, throughout their careers, is well represented in the Collection. In addition, some comparison can be made with the materials used by contemporary painters in Antwerp, London and Rome.


Antwerp's position as the principal commercial centre of Northern Europe, built on sea trade and the textile industry, declined during the 1570s and after years of unrest the city fell to the troops of Philip II of Spain in 1585. As a result of the general migration from the largely Catholic Southern Netherlands the population of Antwerp decreased from about 80,000 in 1584–5 to about 48,400 in October 1586 (note 1).

Rubens was born in 1577 in Siegen, Germany, of parents who were natives of Antwerp. His widowed mother brought her family back to Antwerp in about 1588, the same year that Anthony van Dyck's father, Frans, set up his business in the city as a merchant in silk, ribbons and similar goods. When Van Dyck was born in 1599, his father was quite wealthy; indeed, there had been a gradual improvement in the fortunes of the Southern Netherlands in general. The Twelve Years Truce between Spain and the Dutch provinces from 1609 to 1621 permitted a more sustained revival, under the sympathetic governorship of Archduke Albert of Austria and his wife Isabella, daughter of Philip II of Spain. Much of Antwerp's revitalised trade was in luxury goods, like those dealt in by Van Dyck's father and the silk merchant Daniel Fourment, the father of Rubens's second wife, Helena: silk and tapestry; diamond processing; precious metalwork and fine furniture. The city became the centre for goods moving between the north and the south as Antwerp entrepreneurs benefited from trading links they were able to develop with former emigrants, who had set up in business in the northern cities where they had settled.

The impact of the Counter-Reformation on the revival of the Southern Netherlands, and the renewal of education in, and devotion to, the Catholic faith, cannot be overestimated. Catholic literature and religious prints were produced in enormous numbers by Antwerp presses and Antwerp printers flourished. Nowhere is this influence clearer than in architecture and the arts. New churches were built; old ones were modernised in the Baroque style; devotional paintings were required and produced in large quantity. The activity was not confined to ecclesiastical work; it extended into more secular decorative projects and portraiture and court patronage, both in the Spanish Netherlands and abroad (note 2).

Netherlandish Painters in London

From the latter part of the sixteenth century and through the seventeenth, there was a tradition of painters from the Low Countries working and forming communities abroad, as they did in Rome, for example. The reasons were partly economic, partly religious: many were refugees from the consequences of the long struggle between the Netherlands and Spain. They tended to find work at court, not only in London but also in other Northern European centres such as Copenhagen and Prague (note 3). Undoubtedly the overall technical competence of painters trained in the Netherlands and their mastery of the depiction of surfaces, textures and fastidious detail would have been a factor in their popularity with aristocratic patrons. Local artists, however, felt some resentment at the fact that prestigious commissions went to foreign painters. Henry Peacham, who was a Norfolk schoolmaster and, briefly, tutor to the sons of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, before turning to a literary career in London, lamented in the ‘Epistle dedicatorie’ to his manual ‘Graphice’ (London 1612): 'Onely I am sory that our courtiers and great personages must seeke farre and neere for some Dutchman or Italian to draw their pictures, and invent their devises, our Englishmen being held for ‘Vaunients’ [i.e. worthless persons].' (note 4)

When Van Dyck was invited to England in 1620, he followed on the heels of Paul van Somer (c.1576–1622, from Antwerp) and Daniel Mytens (c.1590–1647, from Delft); Mytens, appointed by Charles I as his 'picture-drawer' for life in 1625 (Plate 1), was later supplanted by Van Dyck on his return in 1632 (note 5). Van Somer in his turn had taken over at the court of James I from John de Critz the Elder (died 1642) and Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (died 1636), both of whom were members of families fleeing Spanish persecutions in the Netherlands in 1568 (note 6). Some local painters did obtain court patronage: Robert Peake and William Larkin (both of whom died in 1619) at the court of James I, and later Cornelis Jonson, appointed a picture-maker to Charles I in 1632 (Plate 2). Jonson was of German/Dutch stock and may well have received some of his training in the Netherlands. A good painter, but unable to compete with the flair and superlative skills of Van Dyck, he retired to Kent and in 1643, after the outbreak of the English Civil War, moved permanently to Utrecht (note 7).

Guilds and the Training of Artists

In Antwerp painters trained in the studio of a master, under the control of the Guild of Saint Luke, much as in previous centuries. The master registered his young apprentices with the Guild on payment of a fee, and after several years' training (perhaps with more than one master), if the Guild was satisfied with the apprentice's work, he was registered as a free master. As well as the painters and panel- and frame-makers (who perhaps made up the majority of free masters), craftsmen in other related trades – printers, bookbinders, those working in the glass and pottery trades, embroiderers and goldsmiths – became free masters of the Guild (note 8). Painters were not only simply registered as ‘schilders’: some are described as ‘doekschilders’ (painters on cloth or canvas), ‘waterverf’- or ‘waterschilders’ (painters in watercolour), ‘geconterfeytschilders’ (portrait painters), ‘huiss childers’ (house painters), and, by the 1630s, ‘lantschapschilders’ (landscape painters) and ‘bloemschilders’ (flower painters). Painters who had received their training elsewhere, but came to live and work in Antwerp, were required to enrol in the Antwerp Guild; the records for 1634–5 include the name of the Leiden painter Jan Lievens, who had first moved to London (where he met Van Dyck while working at court) and subsequently to Antwerp (note 9).

Rubens is not recorded as an apprentice, although it is thought that he trained with Tobias Verhaecht, Adam van Noort – whose other pupils included Jacob Jordaens (in 1607) – and Otto van Veen. He was admitted as a master in 1598 (note 10). Jordaens became a master in 1615, being described as a ‘waterschilder’ (note 11). In 1609 Van Dyck was apprenticed at the age of ten years to the figure painter Hendrick van Balen, who painted small, decorative pictures and had a busy studio in Antwerp (note 12). It is not known when Van Dyck entered Rubens's studio, but the portrait of Van Dyck painted by Rubens in about 1615 (now in the Rubenshuis, Antwerp) suggests that he was a member of his studio by this time and possibly earlier. The association continued until 1620, two years after he had become a master, when he is the only named assistant in the contract for the cycle of paintings on the ceiling of the Jesuit Church, Antwerp (destroyed by fire in 1718) (note 13). As court painter to the Governors of the Spanish Netherlands Rubens was exempted from the rules of the Guild and was not obliged to register the names of his apprentices (although he did register one, Jacques Moermans, in 1621–2) (note 14).

Little is known about the teaching the pupils received in the master's studio at this time. They probably began by drawing: by copying the master's drawings and perhaps published engravings; by drawing from casts and other objects in the studio, such as drapery; and by drawing from the life. Inventories of the properties of artists and of the contents of their studios show that busy and successful painters, like Hendrick van Balen, possessed drawings, books of prints and plaster casts that would have been suitable as teaching aids (note 15). By copying, the pupil would learn how to assemble the elements of a composition; he would also learn how the paint was prepared and how to apply it. As the apprentice developed, he would progress to transferring the master's composition to the prepared support, working from a drawing or sketch; finally he would be sufficiently competent to lay in the composition for final correction and touching-up by the master. At this stage the apprentice could be more accurately described as an assistant.

In the period during which Van Dyck is likely to have been working in Rubens's studio, the majority of Rubens's apprentices seem to have received their basic training elsewhere; whether this was common practice or a particular feature of his studio, because it was extraordinarily busy and the competition to enter it was intense, is not known (note 16). There was at this time no question of a more 'academic' artistic education for the young painter.

In London the painters' trade was regulated by the Painter-Stainers' Company. The Company appears to have acquired a degree of authority and recognition only relatively late in its history, being granted a Royal Charter by Elizabeth I in 1581. This was given after they had presented a petition to the Queen in 1575, complaining of their inability to control the number of foreign painters in the City and the quality of the work done. At this date freemen of the Company fell into various categories: Face Painters, History Painters, Arms Painters (responsible for heraldry) and House Painters. Among the thirty-seven articles in the Charter, one forbade anyone 'English or stranger, denizen or not, freeman or foreign' to do any work connected with painting in any form unless they were known to be skilful and approved. Various dues had to be paid by all those living within a four-mile radius of the City; foreigners were subject to the same dues, conditions and penalties as the English painters. Nobody was permitted to paint unless an apprenticeship of seven years with a painter had been served, except for 'gentlemen' pursuing the art as 'recreation or private pleasure': it is noteworthy that the interest in painting as a pleasurable activity for amateurs had grown to the point where such an exception was necessary. At the end of their apprenticeship the apprentices were examined and their work approved by the Master and Wardens of the Company. The number of apprentices that a member was permitted to have was limited and apprentices had to be presented to the Master and Wardens of the Company within a certain period, or else a fine was payable. As in Antwerp, this enabled the Company to keep a measure of control over the number of masters working, in theory at least. There were penalties for deceitful work and the Company officials were empowered to search premises for faulty goods or materials (note 17).

The London guild waged a constant battle, not only with foreign painters, but also with members of other guilds, particularly those of the heralds and the plasterers, who often carried out rather similar work (note 18). Part of the problem lay in the fact that, in earlier times, the painters had undertaken many lucrative, largely decorative, court commissions, but these were increasingly being given to foreign artists. In 1627, for example, a petition was presented to Charles I by a group of picture-makers, supported by the Painter-Stainers' Company, complaining that painters like Daniel Mytens, Orazio Gentileschi and others (all employed at court) were taking their livelihood. The dispute was partly resolved when in 1636 the Royal Surveyor, Inigo Jones (a member of the Company), was brought in as mediator (note 19). The attempt to encourage good relations between all the warring parties appears to be marked by an invitation to Van Dyck to attend the St Katherine's Dinner on 30 November 1637 at the Painter-Stainers' Hall in the ward of Queenhithe; the other guests included Inigo Jones, John de Critz, the King's Sergeant Painter (the official responsible for arranging all the painted work for the court) and his wife, and Edward Norgate, the Windsor Herald (note 20).

In order to practise a trade, it was necessary to become a freeman of a City company, but one of the simplest expedients to evade this requirement was to live outside the City walls. It has been shown that many painters lived just to the north-west or west of the City, in the parishes of St Giles-without-Cripplegate, St Andrew Holborn, St Sepulchre-without-Newgate (also in Holborn) and St Bride Fleet Street parishes. Another popular location, further west – and nearer the court – was Westminster, and particularly the parishes of St Martin-in-the-Fields and, rather later, the new parish of St Paul Covent Garden, created in its northern part. Very few lived within the City walls (note 21). Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger and his son, also named Marcus, were two of the very few who did: they lived in Warwick Lane, in the parish of Christchurch Newgate Street in the ward of Farringdon Within and both were freemen of the Painter-Stainers' Company. The name of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, as 'Marcus Garret/ Garrett' is recorded as a 'stranger' living in the parish in 1598/9, and also in a list of aliens living in the City of London made in 1618 (note 22). In 1632, Van Dyck stayed with Edward Norgate until he moved into accommodation on the waterside at Blackfriars, within the City of London, in the parish of St Anne. This parish was home to many miniature painters, and also to Cornelis Jonson, and because it was the site of a former monastic foundation – and therefore a 'liberty' or 'precinct' of the City – its residents claimed various privileges, including the freedom for all artists and craftsmen, whether they were freemen of the City or not, to practise their trade without interference from the authorities. This was particularly attractive to foreign painters who had no right of citizenship unless they had become denizens of the City by right (note 23).

A great many Northern European painters, including those from the North and South Netherlands, chose to spend some time in Italy at some point in their careers to broaden their artistic experience; most visited Rome. Here, in the latter part of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the guild system had less control over painters and sculptors than in Antwerp or most other Netherlandish cities, but there was some concern at the perceived ignorance of young painters. Popes Gregory XIII and, later, Sixtus V both supported the suggestion that an academy for the education of artists was necessary, presumably in addition to the training they received with a master, and the Accademia di San Luca was inaugurated in 1593. Its first president was Federigo Zuccaro, and its primary aim was educational; a lecture programme was instituted and life classes were held (note 24). Netherlandish artists visiting Rome enjoyed the relative looseness of control by the painters' guild and formed a close and somewhat riotous community, as Van Dyck found to his cost (note 25). Antwerp painters who had visited or worked in Rome were enrolled in the guild of Romanists, which numbered among its members not only Rubens and Van Dyck, but also Van Dyck's first master, Hendrick van Balen the Elder, Jan Brueghel the Elder, a close friend of Rubens, and Frans Snijders, one of several artists known to have collaborated with Rubens. In practice, the Academy did not have complete ascendancy over the painters' guild and in 1633 the guild levied a compulsory tax on all painters, including foreigners, much to their annoyance. It was also a fairly common practice in Italy, although not at this time in Northern Europe, for groups of artists to gather together to draw from nude models; these informal associations were also known as Academies (note 26). Edward Norgate described such an Academy in his ‘Miniatura or the Art of Limning’ (c.1648) and added that Rubens had told him that 'at his being in Italy, divers of his nation had followed this Academicall course for twenty Yeares together to little or noe purpose' (note 27).

The influence of the work of contemporary Italian painters such as Caravaggio is immediately apparent in the work of artists of the Utrecht School such as Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerrit van Honthorst, and it also impressed Rubens. For Van Dyck the Venetian masters of the previous century, Titian and Veronese, were of the greatest interest. Rubens spent eight years in Italy from 1600 to 1608 in the service of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. He also visited Spain, where he was able to see the Titians and other works in the Royal collection. Van Dyck travelled widely in Italy between 1621 and 1627, spending most time in Genoa.

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