The engraver, draughtsman, and printer Karel van Mallery (1571–d. after 1635) is portrayed here in half-length against a neutral background, gazing to the left; a fractured stump of a marble column is seen on the right. Van Mallery worked in Antwerp and is primarily known for his copper engravings and small devotional pictures.
Anton van Dyck was one of the supreme portraitists of his day, winning acclaim not least for his depictions of King Charles I of England and his family. His teacher and ideal was Peter Paul Rubens: though Van Dyck perhaps lacked some of the master’s tenacity and effectiveness, van Dyck’s portraits show greater sensitivity and a knack for empathizing with the sitter’s life.
Van Dyck created several versions of this portrait, of which the National Museum’s painting is considered the authentic one. We do not know the significance of van Mallery’s mysterious V sign, created by the gap between the index and middle fingers of his left hand, but this detail can also be observed in several of van Dyck’s preparatory studies for this portrait. The column stump is an element from Greco-Roman antiquity that was frequently used in Italian art, and in van Dyck’s art it allegedly indicates that the sitter was grieving. According to the Roman poet Horace, a broken column suggests mental fortitude in adversity, while the Renaissance poet Petrarch (Rime sparse 269) lets us view it rather as symbolizing a rite of passage, in this case the transition to old age, or as a memento mori.
Text: Frode Haverkamp
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0