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The painted face of a King: Charles I and Royal portraiture

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Charles I in Three Positions

Throughout history the symbolism of royal portraits has been used as an image of power. However, it can also give much insight about the sitter’s character. Every symbol in a portrait is chosen carefully, with mythology often playing a part in older images. Queen Elizabeth I used mythology in her portraits, which displayed her chastity and feminine virtues. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, posed with rich jewels and beautifully made attire, which portrayed him as a powerful King regardless of his age or personal issues with his wives and ministers. By the time Charles I became King in 1625, there were many examples of royal portraits that set the standard of how a monarch should be remembered.

Charles I was the second son of James VI of Scotland, and in 1612 he became heir apparent after the death of his older brother, Henry. Although Charles was brought up as a Prince, and therefore gained a princely education, it could be argued that he felt pressured from a young age to try to live up to his elder brother’s example as Prince of Wales. On 27th March 1625, Charles inherited the throne from his father, becoming King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Charles married Henrietta Maria of France in the same year of his accession – this was a marriage that would cause much concern because she was a Roman Catholic living in a Protestant country. Charles, just like his father, believed strongly in the ‘Divine Right of Kings’, which led Charles to alienate much of his court and his advisers on many issues, and consequently caused much upset and frustration amongst Parliament.

In 1632 Charles appointed Anthony Van Dyck as the Principal Painter in Ordinary, making him a leading court painter in Europe. Charles was a great collector of art, and assimilated his love of paintings into the promotion of the English monarchy. The Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, where he is seen to be riding on horseback, suggests that he is a heroic king, perhaps even a philosopher, and a true member of the Order of the Garter.

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The Great Peece painting

In his second equestrian portrait, Charles wears the same suit of armour, therefore making both images echo an imperial tone. Due to his short stature, Charles I might have wanted to appear more militaristic, which displayed his wealth of power. Each portrait was used as propaganda that presented Charles I in a positive way, a manner that he so desperately needed considering tumultuous reign.

Charles I’s eleven year period of ‘tyranny’, now known as his ‘personal rule’, was a time when the King ruled without the support of Parliament. It was throughout this period that Charles alienated himself from court, mainly because he did not have the support of the closest people around him. This is why it became important for Charles to display a strong royal family, along with a monarch that was divine.

The portrait known as The Great Peece tried to project an effective and idealised royal family, even if this was not the case. When Charles I initially saw Henry VIII’s family portrait in the Palace of Whitehall, it is believed he felt how powerful this image was. To portray a formidable royal family to the public exhibited stability, an image that lessened the chance of a monarch being threatened, or even overthrown – an idea that could be argued as being all too familiar during this time. The Great Peece portrait still remains in the royal collection, mainly because it signifies a time when images of monarchs became a commodity.

Charles I even commissioned a portrait of his five children, with the future Charles II resting his hand on an large mastiff. This demonstrates that the future King was capable of ruling the territories he would eventually inherit from his father if he could tame a beast such as the mastiff. Van Dyck’s representations of the royal family were flattering, and gave legitimacy to Charles’s sovereignty. When observing these portraits, the viewer is given the impression that Charles was a gentleman, and leader who exerted authority. Generally, men in this period expressed themselves in their paintings in a masculine way in order to create social and political acceptable.

Part of this movement’s success can be attributed to Van Dyck, because he defined an era with his works. Van Dyck changed the way monarchs were viewed, and shifted the way people thought about clothes, along with the setting of portraits. For his role as King, Charles I felt that he could convey a sense of power and divinity through his portraits, thus making this idealised view of authority a form of reality. When Van Dyck painted Charles I in Three Positions his work was already well known and allowed the King to become like the art he had always valued, even if his parliament or his people did not see him this way.

Photo credit: Lisby and Lisby via photopin cc

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