Chapter III charles I: The Divine Right of Kings and Absolutism in Equestrian Portraiture



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Chapter III

Charles I: The Divine Right of Kings and Absolutism in Equestrian Portraiture

Throughout the early modern period, several artists rose to great prominence due to their close relationships with royal patrons. Alongside Charles V and Titian, Henry VIII and Holbein and contemporaries Philip IV and Velázquez, King Charles I and Van Dyck are axiomatic of this special rapport between monarch and painter. Van Dyck is almost entirely responsible for contemporary conceptions of Charles I, and no more so than in his equestrian themed representations of the King which were created in the halcyon of his reign in the 1630s. In the first English Civil War (1642 – 46) the Royal supporters were known as the ‘Cavaliers’ from the French chevalier, a word which encapsulates courtly nobility and shows how fundamental horsemanship was to Charles I’s image with the equestrian portrait becoming the leitmotif of his rule. With the knowledge of Charles I’s execution in 1647 many have incorrectly interpreted the Van Dyck’s portraits as having a sense of foreboding melancholy. This is unlikely, if not impossible given that Van Dyck died in 1641, before the outbreak of civil war. In this chapter, it will instead be considered that the equestrian portrait was employed to affirm the ideology of the Divine Right of Kings, the desire for union between England and Scotland and to improve Charles I’s physical appearance by combining classical and medieval paradigms with contemporary political references.



Le Roi a La ciasse (Figure Eighteen) has been subjected to a variety of art historical criticism regarding both the title of the work and its uncanonical presentation of Charles I who is dismounted and stood alongside his horse and grooms in a format of equestrian portraiture with few forerunners. While this representation may be surprising considering the audacious nature of Charles I’s absolutist dogma, Van Dyck has nonetheless ensured the monarch’s regality and power are manifested in the image. The painting’s title ‘The King at the Hunt’ has been scrutinised as there is no indication of a chase, hounds or that the King has been separated from a pack. John F. Moffitt instead argues that the King is presented as a ‘miles christanus, who has successfully battled against forces of evil in the nature of Titian’s Charles V at Mühlberg.1 In the eighteenth century the image was also seen, despite illogical chronology, as the flight of the King to the Isle of Wight. 2 In this interpretation however, the visual analysis will engage with the original title, Le Roi a la ciasse, which was recorded in the 1638 royal inventory and thus is the title by which Charles I’s contemporaries would have understood and described it.3 Hunting was praised in book one of Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano and later recognised as one of the liberal arts by Baldovino de Monte Simoncelli, hence this original title affiliated Charles to the gentlemanly virtue associated with the sport.4 In presenting the King as a courtier ignited by the cavalier spirit, hunting motifs such dead game have been omitted as they would have perhaps undermined the refined tone of the work. Politically, the issue of hunting was extremely topical in 1635. Firstly it was morally condemned by the Puritans who denounced hunting and sport due to sin of pleasure it produced. This religious group had been angered by the King’s marriage to Catholic Princess Henrietta Maria, so this title can also be seen as mildly deriding Puritan opinion. The main issue however was that of the Royal Chase, with historian Christopher Johns arguing that ‘one of the principle propagandistic messages of the painting was to assert the royal prerogative in royal hunting forest encroachment laws’.5 Charles I was attempting to re-establish the medieval law of preventing commercial use and squatting in the forests preserved for the King’s hunt, something which had not been enforced since the War of the Roses and resulted in prosecutions and a controversial collection of £37,000 of fines, £8,880,000 in today’s money.6 With Charles presiding over the landscape and framed by the edge of the forest we are left with no doubt as to who is in control of this territory. This title therefore, whilst controversial, is important for expressing the cavalier spirit and the political issues alluded to in the work.

The visual presentation of Le Roi a la Ciasse can be described as a stage-set for the Divine Right of Kings with the relationship of the two main figures, King Charles and his mount, establishing the panegyric nature of the portrait. Van Dyck has painted the horse as significantly shorter than Charles (who stood at five foot five) and created an upward perspective to enhance his dignity and stature with him standing boldly holding cane and glove, turned away from his mount and gazing down at the viewer. His clothing is that of the aristocrat, a cortegiano or cavalier of the Caroline court, but maintains regal grandeur. The horse’s position, with suppliant knee and head to the ground with mouth foaming and sweat forming is incredible significant, especially when considered in the context of the allegory of the ruler as rider and the horse as the people. Rather than man and mount being the powerful, but symbiotic team of earlier equestrian portraits we are now witnessing subservience to the King which is entirely compatible with the politics of absolutism. Charles I believed that he was subject to no earthly authority and ruled through the will of God, feeling unbeholden to both parliament and populace. The relationship to absolutism and the allegory is, from my research, mentioned for the first time here. The visual antecedents of the horse’s action, an ‘emblem of deferential reference in the presence of divine majesty’ can be found in two sources, both with a religious overtones and close links to the art of Anthony Van Dyck.7 The first is Titian’s The Adoration of the Magi (Figure Nineteen) where a horse takes up this position to show his reverence of the Christ child, who - much as Charles I would have seen himself - was God’s messenger and exemplar on earth. The second is from the Constantine Cycle by Van Dyck’s master, Rubens (Figure Twenty), showing a horse bowing to Constantine, the British born Christian emperor who Charles would also have closely identified with. These sources show that as well as absolute power, Le Roi a La Ciasse also employs the horse to emphasise the divinity of Charles I. What is certain is that ‘the horse’s reverence brings out the grandeur of the monarch’ in every respect.8

Whilst man and horse reflect the power of absolutism there is no sense of antagonism in the painting, with the figures situated in complete harmony in the landscape. On the ground beneath Charles’s feet the Latin inscription ‘Carolus I. REX Magnae Britainnae’ is employed to show the union between Scotland and England, however it must be recalled that whilst Charles ruled over both nations the Churches of England and Scotland were not unified by this point nor was there a formal Act of Union until 1707. These words are thus more of a political aspiration than an actuality, but express the significance of the concept of Great Britain to Charles who was of Scottish descent. The landscape also alludes to another contentious issue of the day by incorporating the sea in the background: the shipping tax created to overhaul the Royal Navy and levied against all landowners regardless of whether they were situated in maritime counties.9 It was unpopular, and signalled how Charles taxed according to absolutist lines for his own needs: it remained a source of contention up until the Civil War. By placing the sea beneath the King’s staff on a low horizon line, Van Dyck succeeds in extending Charles’s power beyond the land and out onto the oceans. It can therefore be concluded that in this equestrian portrait, the King, like God, is in complete control of nature, above all his horse, and thereby his people.

The most well known equestrian portrait of the King is Charles I on Horseback (Figure Twenty-one) which continues with the absolutist motifs of the earlier portrait, however this time in the traditional mounted format. In this painting, rather than using the cortegiano theme of the Le Roi a la ciasse, the overriding premise is that of a British emperor ruling over two kingdoms, with subsidiary allusions to medieval romanticism and the English patron saint, St. George. Alongside this imperial theme it can be acknowledged that a classical comparison is being made to the relationship of the King and Van Dyck to that of Alexander the Great and Apelles. Charles I’s status is highlighted by the plaque on the tree in the foreground, just level with his shoulders which repeats the Latin phrase ‘Carolus I. REX Magnae Britainnae’. Charles rides a large dun horse triumphantly out of the traditional English oak tree woodland into an Arcadian landscape sustaining the idealism found in its predecessor Charles I with M. de St. Antoine (Figure Twenty-two) which was described thus:



The horse is not exactly like a horse, yet is so beautifully delicate, and

might be admitted into a drawing room without offence. The head of

Charles is extremely fine, and it might almost serve as a model to paint

the saviour from.10

This hyperbolic idealism is also resolute in the National Gallery image, where both King and horse share long flowing locks and strong physical traits. The melancholic expression worn by the King can, in light of Northcote’s comments can make him appear almost as alter christus, anticipating his own betrayal and subsequent death - after all he was canonized by the Church of England in 1660. In support of this interpretation, Delacroche’s Charles I Insulted by Cromwell’s soldiers (Figure Twenty-three) can be seen as a reference to the mocking of Christ. However, like many previous critics it is important not to apply our own historical hindsight onto a painting of 1638. While the melancholic expression of Charles is uncanny and he would have certainly seen himself as a betrayed messenger of God due to the Divine Right concept, this idea must be applied to posthumous portraits rather than those of Van Dyck. I would instead advocate Roy Strong’s interpretation of Charles’s melancholic expression which describes it as ‘that most fashionable of Caroline moods’ and one of ‘calm spiritual contemplation’.11 This facial expression was used by Van Dyck to age Charles, who is said to have had an immature appearance, making him appear wiser and pious; his legs have also been elongated to make him appear more agile. The conformation of the horse has also been adjusted with its smaller head making the body appear athletic and powerful; in this respect the underwritten allegory of the work shows more reciprocity between King and nation. Nonetheless, the subservience of the horse in La Roi a la Ciasse and the idealisation of rider and mount in each equestrian portrait affirm that Van Dyck depicts the political reverie of divinity and absolutism that Charles’s reign aspired to, making this collection of equestrian portraits politically didactic for contemporary viewers and subsequent generations.



Chapter IV

Napoleon: Horse and Man as Military Partners

While the horse is consistently relevant to the presentation of power in the societies of the early modern period it is in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the relationship of horse and man becomes completely intrinsic to the life and art of Napoleon Bonaparte. The image of the Emperor, mounted on a light grey horse with his bicorne hat is emblematic of the military nature of his regime and his personal legend, with ‘the horse quickly becoming as much a part of the myth as Napoleon himself’.12 Indeed, the philosopher Hegel wrote of Napoleon that ‘sitting on a horse, [he] reaches out to the world and dominates it’.13 Artistic depictions of the horse appear at each stage of Napoleon’s political development, reflecting his imperial intentions at the turn of the century, the legitimatising of his rule in later years and his ultimate downfall at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon made serious developments to the French cavalry during his lifetime, creating six national studs, thirteen stallion centres and three riding schools and his relationship with horses and equestrian values are notable in the equine relics that exist, such as the taxidermy of Le Vizir (Figure Twenty-four) and the skeleton of his most famous mount, Marengo (Figure Twenty-Five). In this way, the monumental imagery of Napoleon on horseback expresses man and beast harmoniously and purposefully pursuing imperial goals with the horse occasionally presented with metaphorical qualities of the Emperor himself.



By far one of the most noteworthy and heroic images of Napoleon on horseback is Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (Figure Twenty-six) which is prophetic in its outlook and a complete idealisation of horse and rider. The portrait was initially created under the patronage of Charles IV of Spain as part of a number of gifts bequeath

1 John F. Moffit, ‘“Le Roi à la ciasse”? Kinds, Christian Knights and Van Dyck’s Singular “Dismounted Equestrian Portrait” of Charles I’, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 4 No. 7 (1983), 82.

2 Julius S. Held, “Le Roi a la ciasse”, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 40 No. 2 (June 1958), 140.

3 Christopher M. S Johns, ‘Politics, Nationalism and Friendship in Van Dyck’s ‘Le Roi a la ciasse”’, Zeitschift für Kunstgeschicte, 51 bd. H 2. (1988)250.

4 Johns, ‘Politics’. 246.

5 Johns, ‘Politics’, 252.

6 Francis Turner, Money in 1632. http://projects.exeter.ac.uk/RDavies/arian/current/howmuch.html February 19 2011.

7 Moffit, ‘“Le Roi”’ 87.

8 Held,‘“Le Roi”’, 147.

9 Johns, ‘Politics’, 253.

10 E.Fletcher, Conversations of James Northcote R.A. with James Ward on Art and Artists, (London, 1901) 76-7, quoted in Van Dyck: Charles I on Horseback, Roy Strong, (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1972), 37.

11 Strong, Van Dyck, 95-96.

12 Christopher Prendergast, Napoleon and History Painting, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 188.

13 Walter Kauffmand, Hegel: A Reinterpretation, (Notre Dame, Ind., 1978), 318 – 19.


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