Wednesday, 6 April 2011
Lady Digby on her Death-Bed by Anthony Van Dyck (1633)
I recently made a a few changes in my living habits, which have resulted in me sleeping like I have never experienced in my adult life. For weeks now, most nights I’ve fallen into deep, oceanic slumber that insomniacs can only dream of. It would be a happy consequence, if the tendrils of sleep didn’t linger throughout the day. A dullness and melancholia, somehow worse that sleep deprivation or hangover, haunts me.
Where am I going with this? I feel, perhaps, that this is an instance where a painting can describe, if a little abstractly, what I’ve been experiencing better than words. A kind of reverse ecphrasis. It might be a little self indulgently morbid, but when struggling out of bed this morning I found myself thinking about Van Dyck’s posthumous portrait of Venetia Stanley.
A little background first: The painting was commissioned by Venetia’s husband, Sir Kenelem Digby. The popular story is that her death was caused by excessive arsenic consumption, taken for cosmetic purposes, encouraged or aided by her shallow or ignorant (or Machiavellian) husband. I don’t know how much of this story is a Victorian construction, who loved a good cautionary tale, although the fact an autopsy was performed suggests there was some suspicion about Venetia’s death at 33.
Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby on her Death-Bed (to use its full name) was painted from drawings made two days after her death. I suspect this painting avoids truth in the photographic sense. There are no signs of rigor mortis or decay, her hands and facial features haven’t contracted. Nor is there any evidence of the plaster casts that were made of her face and hands or the hair cut from the head as a relic. In fact, the only indication she is really dead, and not sleeping, is the slightly open left eye, a subtle and morbid detail. Despite it's obvious beauty it is at complete counterpoint to Van Dyck's numerous portraits of strutting cavaliers and blossoming ladies. Is this a fantasy of death or of sleep?
However, these are just the facts, as far as you can call this smattering of historical titbits and opinion facts. Like many paintings by Old Masters - and indeed all art which is not of our era - we cannot suppose that our initial reaction and interpretation has any relation to what was intended or interpreted at the time. What I do feel free to ponder, is the haunting beauty of this painting and the immutable mysteries of sleep... Sorry, getting melodramatic, what's I'm basically trying to say is see that picture, that's how I feel at the moment.
Perhaps I should just cut out the Sleepytime Extra tea?
Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby on her Death-Bed, by Anthony Van Dyck (1633), is in the collection of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. According to their website it currently needs restoration to which you can contribute by ‘Adopting’ the painting... it’s a little more expensive than a baby panda though.