Permanent Collections: A Tale of Two van Dycks


The most celebrated painting in the collection of the Huntington Library is, of course, Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy. The Huntingtons collected many other great works by Gainsborough, as well as significant paintings by Joshua Reynolds, J. M. W. Turner, and John Constable. However, the work that always holds my attention longest and makes me smile at its deft brushwork, lush color, and sheer beauty is Anthony van Dyck's Anne Killigrew, Mrs. Kirke, and so it and a companion piece– rather than Gainsborough's famous work–are the subjects of this installment of "Permanent Collections," my series about paintings in American museums.

While perusing the Huntington's website to plan my most recent visit, I came across an image of van Dyck's portrait, and immediately my interest in Anne Killigrew...uh...pardon the pun, grew. "Isn't that the same pose of the woman in the van Dyck portrait at the MFA?" I asked myself. Off I went to the website of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and, sure enough there I saw Isabella, Lady De La Warr standing and gesturing just like Anne Gilligrew. Moreover, I discovered that the MFA's painting has the same props and background as the Huntington's. Heck, the skirt of the dress has the same folds. Although I visit the MFA regularly, I had never previously made the connection between van Dyck's two portraits because, in part,  Isabella, Lady De La Warr, languished in storage for many years. And while I can comment on the quality of van Dyck's handling of paint and use of color in the Huntington's painting, there's not a lot I can say about the MFA's van Dyck. It's hung too high for viewers to get a good look at the painting and fully appreciate it.  Looking at the MFA's van Dyck or any other painting in the William I. Koch Gallery is so frustrating. When the gallery was closed for renovation a few years ago, I had hoped that its salon-style hanging scheme would be abandoned once it reopened and that all the paintings on display would be available for close-up inspection. No such luck. The salon-style scheme remains, with many paintings too high up on the walls to be fully appreciated. For example, Rubens' monumental painting, Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris would probably be a fabulous visual treat to view at eye level, but it remains in the same upper corner where it has hung for at least twenty years. Moreover, those paintings that hang at a reasonable height are protected by a knee-high stanchion that keeps viewers at more than arm's length and thus unable to look carefully at surface details. And the lighting in the gallery is far from ideal. Thankfully, the Koch Gallery's salon style has not been adopted in the nearby art of the Netherlands galleries. For as long as I have been visiting the museum, this space has featured a single row of paintings. And the van Dyck normally on view in one of these rooms, Peeter Symons, offers an opportunity to fully engage with one of the painter's works, as well as some exemplary Rembrandt portraits among others. Here's hoping the MFA one day sees fit to provide Peeter Symons with the pleasure of Lady De La Warr's company in this space.