-- by Mara Peterson
Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) was born in Antwerp, Flanders to a prosperous fabric merchant and his second wife. He developed his skill as a painter at a very young age, and by nineteen he was admitted into the painter's guild of Antwerp as a master. Shortly after, he began working in the studio of Peter Paul Rubens, who by this time had great fame throughout Flanders and much of Europe. By 1620, Van Dyck had become senior assistant to Rubens.
Van Dyck was introduced to both etching and engraving by Rubens, who used printmaking extensively and trained engravers for his own use. He developed a strong reputation as a painter while working under Rubens, becoming well-known for his history, religious, and portrait paintings. Due in part to his great skill as a portraitist, he became an important court painter to King James I of England, who was a source of many painting commissions for Van Dyck.
"Jacobus De Breuck" is part of a series of portrait prints titled Iconography, which were executed between 1630 and 1632. The series, which contains a title page with a self-portrait of Van Dyck, consists of one hundred and fourteen prints of well-known contemporaries including princes, scholars, politicians, military commanders, statesmen, philosophers, artists, and art collectors. Jacobus De Breuck, who was a French architect, is posed in a formal, dignified manner with a look of intense seriousness and concentration. The figure, presented in a traditional frontal bust-length view, is modeled in the typical Baroque contrasts of light and dark, and is executed in a controlled, linear technique, a trademark of Van Dyck's work that he developed despite the influence of Rubens' loose, painterly style. The linear details of De Breuck's bulky torso are precise and meticulously formed, and his facial expression is skillfully rendered, giving us a glimpse of Van Dyck's great skill and sensitivity at producing a distinctive portrait likeness.
Like most of the portraits in Van Dyck's Iconography, "Jacobus De Breuck" is an engraving rather than an etching (ninety-nine of them are engravings, and fifteen are etchings). Instead of the more quick, spontaneous method associated with etching, engravings are produced through an exacting process, which requires the skill of a trained engraver. In preparing the series, Van Dyck created meticulous drawings and oil sketches as guides and then sent them to a professional engraver to execute the actual plates, which were then printed and marketed by publishers. "Jacobus De Breuck" was engraved by Paulus Pontius, who was one of the most renowned engravers in Antwerp at this time, and who was also employed by Rubens. The deliberate and intensive process of engraving is mirrored in the precise, formal, and controlled quality of "Jacobus De Breuck."
This portrait, and others in the Iconography series, have a very formal and dignified air about them, reflecting the high-minded, intellectual, and aristocratic climate that existed in Flanders at this time. Engraving is an ideal medium to express an aristocratic aesthetic due to its formal precision and technical refinement. While Van Dyke's Iconography series may have been inspired by the tradition of commemorative Dutch Mannerist portraits and Ottavio Leoni's early 17th century Italian portraits of scholars and artists, there had been a longstanding literary practice in Europe eulogizing the achievements of notable dignitaries and men of letters. However, with images such as Jacobus De Breuck, Van Dyck was part of a growing trend in the 16th and 17th centuries to elevate and promote the artist as a erudite, humanist intellectual, and formal portraiture was an effective vehicle for propagating this cultural ideal.
Because of the nature of engraving, the portraits of Iconography serve more of a reproductive function than one of pure artistic creation. Although these works were designed by Van Dyck himself, the hands that created the plates for the actual printing were those of a professional engraver who was trained to copy the lines of a preliminary drawing exactly onto the copper plate. Van Dyck actually based the compositions for these portraits on already executed paintings, the majority of which were done by himself, but a few were done by others. We know that these portraits were based on pre-existing paintings by analysis done of his works, and by the appearance of the word "pinxit" on the prints. "Pinxit" means "he painted it" and was included with the intention of referring viewers to the fact that he was a skilled portrait painter.
"Jacobus De Breuck" bears the inscription of "pinxit" just beneath the sitter's name and title. Despite this fact, no extant painting has been identified that it corresponds to (however, the preliminary sketch for the engraving rendered in black chalk with ink washes is currently in the collection of Victor Thaw in New York). Moreover, some compositional features do exist that point to its adaptation from another format. "Jacobus De Breuck," like many of the other Iconography portraits, exhibits some awkward cropping of hand gestures and figurative pose, since it was most likely removed from its original context within a formal painting. The Iconography portrait figures had to be scaled to a similar size and shape in order to be printed and published in a uniform manner. Indeed, the left hand of Jacobus De Breuck extends over the border of the print, and grasps a drafting instrument. We can only guess what pictorial context Van Dyck originally had him placed in.
Through the circulation of this published series, and because of the reproducible nature of prints, Van Dyck desired to promote his artistic skill as an accomplished portraitist. In essence, the publication of "Jacobus De Breuck" and the rest of this series was a commercial venture, undertaken in hopes of economic success in expanding Van Dyke's artistic reputation and career. Despite this, the Iconography series is regarded as one of Van Dyck's most important works, both because of the ambitious size of the project and the artistic skill and innovation involved in its creation.