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The Court Painter: The Exclusivity of the ‘Popular’ Artist

What makes the work of one artist more 'desirable' than another? Xander Haveron-Jones finds parallels between the artworks of the 17th-century Stuart Period and the current climate of the contemporary art market.

For the casual modern art admirer, it might initially be difficult to comprehend the business of art in the 17th-century; a time in which an extraordinary gulf between rich and poor – there was not yet a middle class – meant that it was commonly the most elite members of Court who had the funds to commission or buy artworks (particularly portraits). Exclusive in price, the artwork was simultaneously ‘exclusive’ in that those who could afford to commission works regularly sought the most fashionable artists of the day, buying into a fashionability which would assert their relevance in a Court which highly valued commodified shows of wealth such as that provided by artworks which affirm the wealth, virtue, and status of its subjects and owners. This might be compared to the exclusivity of the art market today, where the most popular artists are those who create works so astronomical in price that only the world’s uppermost elite can afford to acquire them: while the obligatory British aristocrat’s status symbol was once a portrait by Van Dyck or Lely, the new international billionaire elite might opt for a $90 million stainless steel rabbit by Jeff Koons.

The decades of the Stuart period were a tumultuous time for the developing European art market, with the execution of the art-loving King Charles – and sudden authority of a Puritanical Parliament – throwing the survival of Charles I’s art collection, consisting endlessly of fine baroque paintings, whose subject matter was deemed to be ‘un-Puritan’, into turmoil. Nevertheless, the monarchical Stuart rule on either side of the Interregnum – particularly under Charles I – saw a resumed renaissance in royal collecting, and became a period in which art was more in demand than it ever had been before.

Influenced largely – as most trends were – by Royal popularity, the desired artists were those favoured by the monarch; it was King Charles I who actually created a title to certify the role of one principal artist amongst the Court: the Principal Painter in Ordinary. The first artist to work under this title was Sir Anthony van Dyck, of whom his employer was a great admirer. Arguably one of the most skilful artists in history, Van Dyck is famed for his ability to capture the human likeness in vividly evocative tones, and amongst splendidly sumptuous classical scenes. It was this talent – alongside having the King’s favour – that resulted in his popularity amongst the whole of Court, whose aristocrats began readily commissioning him for portraits.

However, Van Dyck’s work surpassed merely producing portraits: he also worked on behalf of the King to screen potential acquisitions for the Royal collection, regularly asking for sketches of artworks before purchase to guarantee their quality (in his words, “the schools of the most excellent artists often produce donkeys”: undesirable works which he would be able to reject if he saw a facsimile beforehand). Van Dyck’s ‘co-management’ of the Royal collection, in which he inevitably worked right alongside the King, therefore solidified him as far more than a mere painter. Indeed, Van Dyck’s curation of the King’s works speaks to the extent of Charles’ desire to amass a fine collection, and therefore the appreciation of artwork in the period: one of history’s greatest art collectors, Charles amassed an immeasurable collection, making numerous foreign excursions (along with official art agents) at great expense to Parliament and the taxpayer. Indeed, before his execution, Charles’ hoard boasted works by the supremes of art history, including Rubens, Titian, Raphael, and Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which famously sold for $450m in 2017.

After his death in 1641, Van Dyck was followed in the role by Sir Peter Lely, who rose to similar dominance as his forebear (of whom his works were heavily influenced). Lely, like Van Dyck, was very well-received by the Court, rising to prominence as his commissions increasingly included affluent members of royal circles. The splendour of Lely’s portraiture was such that he soon would become the most fashionable artist to approach for a commission, his works preferred threefold: for their quality, their price (which meant those who could afford them were selectively of eligible status), and their painter being a ‘celebrity’ of the art world.

The extent of Lely’s influence and popularity was such that, after the execution of his patron Charles I, he was actually allowed to continue on and serve the Puritan Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and his son and successor, Richard (even despite his puritanically disagreeable royal servitude). Moreover, following the end of the Interregnum and swift return of Charles II to England in 1660, he remained just as popular and flourished still in the returned Stuart court.

Nowadays, the rise of commercialism has seen the art market develop into something which doesn’t much resemble the refined fancies of the relatively small British Court. There still remains, however, a global fascination with ‘the popular artist’ which does recall the excitement surrounding fashionable artists such as Lely. While the art market is much more diverse now than in centuries past, it remains that some artists are nevertheless perceived to be incredibly desirable: one such example is Jeff Koons, whose net worth – being in the hundreds of millions – is immediate evidence of his personal desirability. In 2019, it was Koons’ Rabbit (1986), a ballon-art stainless steel rabbit, which sold for exactly $91.1 million.

To many, Koons has become a symbol of capitalist commercialism: indeed, most artists don’t tend to collaborate with luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and BMW. While his tremendously profit-motivated practice might set him apart from 17th-century artists (and most other artists of today), there are further similarities: Koons has a large team of assistants working round-the-clock in a studio (factory) to meet the demands of his many multi-million-dollar artworks, sold in galleries across the world. Of course, Van Dyck and Lely’s studios were not functioning in such a modern Koonsian mania of profiteering, but the price of their works was certainly representative of their ‘luxury’ prestige and was helped along by studio assistants to maximise production.

Surely, no modern artwork could be worth $91.1 million in genuine brilliance alone: like most commodities, price is representative of demand, and Koons’ works being as expensive as they are, are self-evident that even works produced by a studio are valued solely largely for their position as a symbol of wealth and contemporary fashionability, somehow validating their owners who are able to boast of their ownership ‘of a Koons’.

Despite the prices his works fetch, I would argue that Koons is not especially original; while some of his earlier works are marked by a strong sense of ghastly contempt for the mood of pop culture and saturated media in which they were created, his recent pieces regularly duplicate renowned historical artworks (with an added polished steel blue ball or two, whacked in the centre and called a few tens of millions). The fact that Koons’ work isn’t fundamentally collected for its originality or trailblazing creativeness affirms the view that his works’ popularity is such because they are tokens, as opposed to the treasures of a genuinely distinctive and individual collection. This factor distinguishes Koons from the artists of the Stuart Court who, although satisfying the demands of their high-paying sitters, were fundamentally talented, producing works in styles (and a quality) which had never been seen before, or since.

An artist (photographer) similarly iconic – though distinctly more ‘original’ than Koons – is Annie Leibovitz, who has photographed sitters from Queen Elizabeth and Theresa May to John Lennon and Angelina Jolie. Though undoubtedly less famous than Koons, Leibovitz net worth (in the low tens of millions) remains a testament to the popularity of someone whose income (unlike Koons, a sculptor/painter) is not achieved through selling physical pieces of artwork to members of the public: such is much more like Van Dyck and Lely in this sense, as her desirability is due to her talent. Leibovitz has a remarkable ability to capture a pureness and vulnerability in her famous sitters: she photographed a curled, nude John Lennon with Yoko Ono mere hours before his murder in 1980. In 2007, she was invited to photograph the Queen (infamously asking her to remove her tiara, a request later misrepresented on film by the BBC and causing an internal scandal).

Therefore I would argue that Leibovitz is a much closer modern example of a ‘Court painter’, or, someone whose combined talent and popularity (the latter resulting from the former) makes both them and their work desirable to the elite who can afford to commission a (photographic) portrait which evokes the exclusivity of the Court Painter.

While it is inevitable that the art market’s capitalist conversion has caused it to progress from the baroque refinement of the Stuart period, it nevertheless remains that the contemporary art market is one which often values the names of artists over the actual merit of their works. Examining the continued popularity of ‘popular artists’ in a modern context provides an intriguing comparison, and reveals how the human desire to buy into a fashion is the one thing that has not changed, although these statuses are no longer Classically- alluding commissions for English country houses, but rather, the brash tokens of capitalist collecting culture admired on the owner’s summer visit to their third house in the Bahamas.

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