Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 26, 2008
John Peacock The Look of Van Dyck: The Self-Portrait with a Sunflower and the Vision of the Painter Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006. 320 pp.; 4 color ills.; 72 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (0754607194)

In his Self-Portrait with a Sunflower (ca. 1633), the artist Anthony Van Dyck turns to gaze out at the viewer. With one hand he points to himself while holding up for display the gold chain recently presented to him by his patron, the English monarch Charles I; with the other he gestures toward a large sunflower that seems to mirror the artist’s pose. Both the man and plant appear animated, as his tousled hair and the flower’s thick petals appear to respond to the shifting light and billowing atmosphere surrounding them. The picture’s intertwined themes have long been recognized: Van Dyck represents himself as the ideal courtier, whose devotion to his monarch is likened to the flower’s natural inclination to follow the path of the sun, while he also promotes a claim for the nobility of pictorial art.

In The Look of Van Dyck, John Peacock develops and specifies these themes in a wide-ranging investigation of the cultural milieu in which the picture was produced. More particularly, he argues that the Self-Portrait offers a subtle, learned, and imaginatively realized meditation on an idealist conception of painting as a mode of vision that apprehends both the natural world and its transcendent truths. This Neoplatonic notion of representation was, as Peacock demonstrates, a central tenet of the Caroline court, a concept well-suited to the court’s absolutist politics that endowed the ruler with infallible authority. It was also a recurrent strain in the traditions of art theory, natural science, notions of courtly decorum, and Counter-Reformation thought, which Peacock proposes as a set of discursive frameworks shaping the Self-Portrait’s multi-layered meanings. Peacock is an engaging and skillful guide through the territory he has charted around Van Dyck’s painting. Building his arguments more by accretion than by a linear development, he forges a number of pathways outward from the Self-Portrait, guided in this endeavor by the admirable breadth and rigor of his scholarship.

In chapter 1, Peacock considers the ambitions of Self-Portrait with a Sunflower in relation to the theme of Narcissus. Narcissus might not only refer to the self-regard fundamental to the self-portrait; he also figures importantly in Alberti’s De Pictura (1435) as the founder of painting. By the seventeenth century Narcissus had accrued a range of associations as the paradigm of art, expounded perhaps with the greatest wit and complexity in the works of the poet Giambattista Marino. In a characteristically careful and deft reading of his primary sources, Peacock discerns in Alberti’s text an emphatically “pictorial account” of art making, one that defines painting as “constituted by the act of looking” (14). Peacock traces the evolution of this notion, especially as it is attached to the figure of Narcissus, through a range of early modern texts and their varying reception of Ovid, Plato, and Philostratus, arriving at Marino’s Baroque, aesthetized Narcissus, whose loving gaze can both perceive beauty and bring it into being.

Chapter 2 moves from the discussion of vision in humanist texts to its function as a motif in Van Dyck’s art. While the upward gaze from below could signify social hierarchies in Van Dyck’s portraits, it also could convey, in works like the 1628 St. Augustine in Ecstasy altarpiece, that sight is a means of knowing the divine. In his analysis of the altarpiece, Peacock weds contemporary optical theory of vision—as a faculty that actively apprehends rather than passively receives its impressions—to the emphasis on vision in Augustine’s thought. In Van Dyck’s rendering the saint embodies the Counter-Reformation defense of the sensory enactment of faith. This privileging of sight as knowledge resonated, in Peacock’s account, with the strongly Neoplatonic milieu of the Stuart court, where Van Dyck arrived four years after painting the St. Augustine.

Peacock focuses next on the two central motifs of the Self-Portrait: the sunflower and the gold chain. His treatment of the sunflower far exceeds the traditional methods of iconographic study, as he tracks its representation in herbals and medicinal texts soon after its introduction to Europe in the sixteenth century, followed by its widespread use in imprese and emblem books. Peacock views the sunflower as more than an iconic repository of meanings, and he situates it within a varied set of representational practices that mobilize differing references. He avidly describes how the plant, initially inscribed in a “mixed narrative” (114) of complementary scientific and sensual and poetic modes of description, was quickly endowed with human form and face, with feeling and the faculty of sight, especially in Jesuit devotional literature and emblems that likened the flower to the human soul, whose love of God compels it to turn toward divine radiance. As Peacock cogently argues, Van Dyck’s attraction to the sunflower as an apt alter ego in his Self-Portrait arises from his appreciation of its richly allusive connection to the themes of vision so crucially at play in this work. These cultural resonances of the sunflower intersect suggestively with those associated with the gold chain. Peacock parses the chain not only as the literal sign of Charles’s favor but also as a conflation of two familiar motifs: the Golden Chain of Homer, which was an image of the connection between earthly and divine realms, and Plato’s rings, which figured the energy of inspiration or artistic furor as chains of light uniting the cosmos. As Peacock informs us, this iconography, with its Neoplatonic idea of a universe constructed as linked hierarchy, was familiar to the Stuart court through its use in court masques.

Peacock further establishes the Neoplatonic leanings of Van Dyck’s circle in England in a chapter devoted to his portrait of his friend, the “virtuoso” of philosophy and natural science, and founding member of the Royal Society, Sir Kenelm Digby. As in his Self-Portrait, Van Dyck represents Digby accompanied by a large sunflower. Here and in the following chapter, Peacock is at his most persuasive, as he draws the multiple themes he has developed into a powerful reading of these two paintings. His comparison of the Self-Portrait and the Digby portrait convincingly shows Van Dyck as an artist who is not only fluent with early modern discourses on art, beauty, knowledge, and notions of the ideal courtier, but who is able also to mobilize and deploy these discourses in images addressing the overlapping but nonetheless distinct contexts of the philosopher/scientist and artist/courtier. Peacock builds upon earlier research that saw Van Dyck’s figure in his Self-Portrait as a version of Ripa’s personification of Pittura. Expanding the notion of mimesis in Ripa’s figure to include linking the visible world with higher realities, Van Dyck reformulates the seventeenth-century argument that art’s nobility resides in intellectual skills by emphasizing its transcendent aims. It is art’s ends, not its means, that proves the case. Peacock augments his analysis of Van Dyck’s distinct claims regarding the nobility of art with an agile reading of Castiglione and other texts that show the imbrication and circulation in the English court of ideas about courtly elegance, beauty, and the pictorial arts.

In making his interpretive claims Peacock remains alert to the elasticity, as well as the density, of Baroque symbolic forms, and to the capacity of seventeenth-century artists and audiences to use and view them as an endlessly shifting semantic field rather than as a stable code. Peacock, whose academic field is not art history but English, is a nuanced and sensitive reader of diverse kinds of texts, conveying the tone and voice of the authors, enabling us to hear notes of admiration or scorn in their emphatically intertextual enterprises. Indeed, among the many pleasures of this highly learned study is Peacock’s own graceful, unforced prose and the often fascinating material that he marshals to his purposes. We learn, for example, something about the stage technologies and forms of dance used in Stuart court masques; about St. Augustine’s notion of memory as motivated by an appetite that swallows thought into the mind as if it were a belly; about the extravagant (though, it turns out, perhaps not entirely chaste) mourning of Sir Digby for his beloved wife; and in a brief appendix, about Digby’s research on the “Powder of Sympathy” or “weapon-salve” that would treat wounds through application to the weapons that inflicted them.

There is much that Peacock does not address, including fuller inquiry into how Van Dyck constructed his role as “Principal Painter” to Charles within the world of the court, nor the potentially interesting questions about early modern notions of gender and humoral theory in relation to the Neoplatonic concept of painting here attributed to Van Dyck. Occasionally the quality of the black-and-white illustrations does not match the lucidity of the text. But granted these exclusions and limitations, The Look of Van Dyck alters and enriches an understanding of the work at its center. Countering a trend in academia for books with ever broader sweep, Peacock demonstrates the complex forms of thought that can be discerned in a sustained study of a single work of art.

Lisa Rosenthal
Associate Professor, Art History Program, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

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