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It’s important to translate portraits like James Stuart by Anthony Van Dyck into today’s ideology. During the mid 1600s, when this was painted, dandy dressers like Stuart here exuded power. This outfit may read as feminine now but these were macho duds and long curls also meant power and prestige. The enormous lace collar and silver embroidered star told viewers of his time that James Stuart was an important man. His dog served to back that up with an adoring gaze.
The Order of the Garter
Van Dyck likely painted this for James Stuart in order to hallmark his initiation into the Order of the Garter. This is a senior status of knighthood granted by the King of England. It comes with perks such as shifting in title from Mr. Stuart to Sir James Stuart. The garter refers to an actual garter worn at the knee. We see our knight here brandishing this honor on his knee to our right. There are also many ceremonial honors and rituals involved in being an Order of the Garter member.
My favorite of these honors involves a family crest. Once indoctrinated, members can encircle their family crest with an Order of the Garter ribbon. It’s just one way that these honors pass down through the generations of a family. That gives them aristocratic lineage so that anyone who sees their family crest, knows they’re nobility. Another symbol of nobility is the star of this painting, Stuart’s greyhound.
I love the way his greyhound leans into James Stuart and looks up at him with adoration. The dog even has crossed front paws in a gesture of submission to Sir Stuart. Canines are the ultimate fealty symbol. So, posing with his loyal companion keeps nobleman James on brand. This apparent obsession with status and standing in society only highlights his lack of substance, though. That’s because James Stuart seems to care only about badges and the appearance of honor. His dog, on the other hand, shows integrity and fidelity in action with the way he honors Stuart.
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Viewers can also see that Anthony Van Dyck honors James Stuart in this portrait. The painting gives the impression of mastery and control. That comes through especially in Van Dyck’s use of light and texture. A glint of silver flashes through the embroidered star on Stuart’s velvet arm. We know it’s a significant symbol thanks to Van Dyck’s highlight. That may be because this star isn’t just one of the Order of the Garter’s emblems. It also points to James Stuart as a star of sorts.
The Honor of a Greyhound
But the true star in this portrait is his gorgeous greyhound. Van Dyck reveals himself as a master of realism with his uncanny portrayal of Stuart’s dog. Whenever I see this painting it’s the greyhound that holds my attention. How did Van Dyck get the fur so subtle and soft while also giving the dog’s musculature such definition? Even with all the finery and fanfare atop James Stuart, the greyhound steals the show in a naked and natural state.
Anthony Van Dyck loved to dress in aristocratic trappings much like James Stuart in this portrait. So, I don’t think it’s likely my take matches the painter’s intentions. But he created this to please the client, that was job one. Still, even with this simple goal, Van Dyck created a masterpiece. We can see a deeper lesson within this nobleman’s portrait without dismissing its beauty or purpose. After all, there’s no mistaking that Van Dyck achieved a pleasing portrait celebrating Stuart’s membership in the Order of the Garter.
Realism and the Real Deal
When I encounter this masterpiece on the gallery wall in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I see something more. The dog seems alive and in the moment. This greyhound holds my attention more than James Stuart’s glistening medallions and velvet frocks. That’s because the dog feels real it’s almost as if it has heart.
Even though Van Dyck’s portrait of James Stuart has the same masterful level of realism, the man behind the finery feels like he’s performing for us rather than truly present. He’s a showman whereas the greyhound feels like the real deal. It’s as if the dog could turn his head at any moment and look me in the eye. But Stuart will remain in that pose, showing off his trinkets and lace, forever.
That’s why I see this painting as a meditation on what it means to be alive. The masterpiece James Stuart by Anthony Van Dyck has me asking myself; are you here to put on a show and impress… or do you want to get real?
James Stuart – FAQs
Why is Anthony Van Dyck an important painter?
Anthony Van Dyck became the most accomplished court painter in the mid 1600s even though he was a Flemish artist. A bit of a child prodigy, he was working in the studio of Peter Paul Rubens as a teenager.
His work was incredibly influential and Van Dyck’s brushwork established realistic elegance as the height of innovation for the time. This painting style owned portraiture for the next 150 years. Van Dyck remains one of the most influential portrait painters in the history of art.
Why is the painting James Stuart by Anthony Van Dyck significant?
In the 17th century Van Dyck was rising in the ranks of court painting alongside his mentor Rubens. He obsessively pitched his idea to do a series of paintings on the Order of the Garter’s history. But his history paintings were no match for peer court painter Velázquez’s. Instead he was known for his faces and became an icon of portraiture.
The painting James Stuart celebrates this aristocrat’s entry into the Order of the Garter. This masterpiece fuses Van Dyck’s enthusiasm for the topic with his mastery of portrait painting technique.
Enjoy this analysis of James Stuart by Anthony Van Dyck?
Check out these LadyKflo essays about masterful portraits.
See James Stuart at the Metropolitan Museum of Art online.
Rudi Ekkart and Quentin Buvelot (eds), Dutch Portraits, The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals, Mauritshuis/National Gallery/Waanders Publishers, Zwolle,
Hans Vlieghe, “Thijs, Pieter.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 22 August 2019
Brown, Christopher: Van Dyck 1599–1641. Royal Academy Publications, 1999.
Vlieghe, Hans. Flemish Art and Architecture, 1585–1700, Yale University Press, 2004,
Becker, D. P., in KL Spangeberg (ed), Six Centuries of Master Prints, Cincinnati Art Museum, 1993