There are actually two versions of Anthony van Dyck’s painting of the countess of Southampton; Anthony van Dyck, Rachel de Ruvigny, Countess of Southampton, ca. 1640, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and Anthony van Dyck, Rachel de Ruvigny, Countess of Southampton as ‘Fortune’, ca. 1638, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. There have been discussions on which between the two is the primary version.
Ursula Hoff argued that the painting located in Melbourne is the primary version basing on three aspects:
Current scholars and art critics are still arguing the primacy between these two paintings.
Our discussion on the other hand, relies specifically on the Melbourne Collezione privata/Private coversion.
Anthony van Dyck painted the portrait of Rachel de Ruvigny, Countess of Southampton in the 17th century, around 1640. The painting takes the size up to 222. 4 centimetres in height and 131. 6 centimetres in width. This is a type of portraiture painting that was done with oil on canvas. This painting also belongs to a particular type of school which appears to be Baroque. Portraiture in this school is done in accordance to verisimilitude, which is the semblance of reality.
By briefly observing through the picture plane, this painting has a build up of clouds as the foreground that helps determine where the subject stands.
In the foreground, you can also see the human skull which lies just under Rachel de Ruvigny’s foot. The middle ground contains the main subject matter which is Rachel de Ruvigny herself and a giant sphere where her left arm lies on top of. For the background, Anthony van Dyck has also painted more clouds where the sun beams behind the main subject matter.
The whole setting of this painting creates the illusion that Rachel de Ruvigny is floating on the clouds in the sky. The composition of this painting however is asymmetrical. Even though the main subject is centred in the middle of the picture plane, the large sphere that makes it asymmetrical. Where the balance may seem to be weighing to the right, the skull at the bottom left of the painting works as a complementary to the sphere and has created balance. In this painting, the main focal point is Rachel de Ruvigny as it is in a form of portraiture.
To establish that she becomes the focal point, the colours used to paint her are lighter and more vivid than her surroundings. The other elements in this painting are painted in muted colours that would not disrupt the viewers’ eyes to the main focal point. Moving on to the lighting in this painting, it contributes to achieving the sense of realism and three-dimensional space. The light source is shining from the upper right side and reflects mainly to Rachel de Ruvigny’s face and down to her gown and the sphere.
Chiaroscuro has also been used as a technique in this painting that represents the light and shadow to develop a three-dimensional effect. In this painting, it can be specifically shown in the sphere that makes it look fragile and shaped as a whole object that has volume. The shadows also go into the folds of the fabric of her dress. This technique helps in indicating what is forward and located closest to the viewers and what is located further and away as a three-dimensional effect.
Anthony van Dyck had used aerial perspective in this painting and the illusion of depth has been created by the change of colour and tone. There is an obvious use of geometric shape of a circle on the sphere to form its whole shape and having organic shapes for the whole figure of the countess and especially the clouds in the background and foreground. The artist has also managed to develop the texture in this painting. He mainly used light and rough brushstrokes instead of thick layers of paint like impasto.
Gentle and small brushstrokes build up the figure of Rachel de Ruvigny, from her hair to her gown. These brushstrokes do not appear loose or quick. The shine and the way the fabric flows create the texture of silk. The application of oil paint has helped in achieving the production of this texture. For the clouds, the build up of paint through dabbing and swirling has made them look soft and fluffy. The sphere is also painted with reflective spots and a smooth surface to create the texture of a sleek fragile orb.
Moving on to the colour harmony of this painting, Anthony van Dyck has used complementary colours two of which are blue and orange. The subject, Rachel de Ruvigny, is mainly wearing a blue/blue-green gown as where the background and other objects such as the sphere and skull are painted in this dark hue of orange that contrasts with the main subject. Van Dyck has also used different types of lines in this painting. Firstly, the folds and wrinkles in her clothes are created by soft and sensual lines that have made the fabric more realistic.
Also, contour lines have been used to indicate of where the light and dark touches. Other than that, soft lines have been used to paint her curly hair. For proportion-wise, the size of Rachel de Ruvigny is well proportioned to herself and makes the skull at the bottom left of the painting in proportion to her as well. However, the sphere on the right side of the painting looks disproportioned and considered large in comparison with the human subject matter.
Going through the content of the painting, Giovanni Pietro Bellori, earliest biographer of Anthony van Dyck, has suggested that the painting was described as ‘the Duchess of Southampton as the goddess of Fortune, seated on the globe of the earth’. Fragilitas humana, which directly means human frailty, is symbolized by how she is located up high in the clouds and is illuminated by the sun. The human skull that rests under her foot symbolizes memento mori, which is Latin for ‘Remember Death. ’ It is basically a reminder of mortality.
The way that she is posed resembles a triumphant and competent woman. Even though Rachel de Ruvigny has been painted in the guise of fortune, Rachel was not considered to bring wealth on her marriage to her husband, Thomas Wriothesley. Having his wife depicted in the guise of Fortune could simply be meant to convey his good luck, the skull merely being a conventional memento mori. Anthony van Dyck was patronized by Thomas Wriothesley, 4th Earl of Southampton upon painting this portrait. Rachel was the first wife of the 4th Earl of Southampton.
Unfortunately, their marriage was short as Rachel died in childbirth in 1640 and was deeply mourned. Thomas valued her quite deeply: A Lady of a goodly Personage, somewhat taller than ordinarily French Women are, excellent eyes, black hair, and of a most sweet and affable Nature, was nine years a widow, much courted in France, yet held her reputation intire. My Lord is a very happy man in her. Rachel de Ruvigny was dubbed the ‘La belle et vertueuse Huguenotte’ in France which deliberately means ‘The beautiful and virtuous Huguenot’.
In a letter from Lord Conway to Lord Wentworth, she was described as “very merry and very discreet, very handsome, and very religious… ” What I have based my historical context on is mainly from The Burlington Magazine with additional source from a complete catalogue of Van Dyck’s work. In the process, I have discovered that the most mentioned argument is the primacy between the two versions of this painting. As what has been briefly discussed in the introduction about Ursula Hoff’s hypothesis, other scholars have different opinions and perspectives that may contradict with her statement.
From Gustav Gluck’s frame of mind, he believes that the Cambridge version is the primary version from looking at the way how her hand is presented. The pose of her hand is supposedly the original idea according to Gluck where as the sceptre have also appear to be removed from the Melbourne version. However, Ursula Hoff believes that the sceptre which the countess holds may symbolize immortality. And apart from that, the way that the foot is not covered in the Cambridge version emphasizes more of the triumph over death.
With these allegorical contents, Mark Roskill explained that, “To describe van Dyck’s portraits is to see why they do not conform to such a notion of symbolism. ” This means that from the elements included in the Cambridge version that was painted first, Van Dyck would not add more symbolical contexts to the second version as he is not a proponent of such allegory. In conclusion, the analysis which has been created shows that Anthony van Dyck has portrayed the countess of Southampton successfully in terms of the sense of realism and what communicates to the viewers about her.
It is certain that the painting shows the characteristics of Rachel de Ruvigny and what her husband, patron of this painting, would have wanted to show. Van Dyck has also used several techniques in order to pursue his goal from the composition of the elements to appear aesthetic to the allegory behind the elements of the painting. It has also come to the consideration of mine that the scholars do generally argue only on this matter of primacy, which has been discussed carefully in the preceding section. It does make one wonder whether the primacy of art still matter significantly in the contemporary world.