Anthony van Dyck’s Equestrian Portraits of Charles I

Alena Buis was born and raised in North Delta, British Columbia. She is currently in her fourth year of studies in Art History at Concordia University. Ms. Buis has been horseback riding since the age of five and has learned a great deal from both her two legged instructors and four legged friends. Ms. Buis hopes to continue her education in art history and equestrianism.

“…where the horse serves only as a grand base for the elevation of the ruler” [1].

“No animal is more noble than the horse, since it is by horses that princes, magnates and knights are separated from lesser people, and because a lord cannot fittingly be seen among private citizens except through the mediation of a horse” [2].  Since early mythology, horses have been associated with great rulers. Welsh and Celtic legends revered white horses as sacred and only to be ridden by royalty. Horsemanship was associated with virtue and courage, which were essential qualities in a ruler. The depiction of mounted emperors in Ancient Rome were to be understood as visual assertions of temporal power. The potency of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, on Rome’s Capitoline Hill, was enhanced when the Catholic Church appropriated it during its sixteenth-century renovations of the area [3]. In seventeenth-century England, King Charles I was depicted within the same imperial tradition as Marcus Aurelius [4].  Anthony van Dyck’s equestrian portraits of Charles I, Charles I on Horseback with M. de St. Antoine (1633), Charles I at the Hunt (1635), and Charles I on Horseback (1637), are amazingly complex works that draw from established iconographical traditions, and contributed to the future depictions of the horse in art.

Horses have always played a large role in England, both militarily and economically. Breeds such as the Highland Pony, Welsh Pony, and Shetland Pony, as well as the heavier draught breeds like the Shire and Suffolk Punch horses originated in the British Isles. The survival of such horses was important to successive English monarchs. During a period of roughly four hundred years, the English government strove to increase the number of horses available for agriculture and warfare, as well as to significantly enhance the size and strength of such horses. In an attempt to create a large breed horse, Henry VII (1485-1509), passed an edict ordering all horses under fifteen hands to be destroyed [5][6].  This was entirely unsuccessful because ponies continued to thrive in rural areas. In an effort to continue his father’s quest for a larger English breed, Henry VIII (1509-1547) passed several laws banning the export of horses over fifteen hands to any country, including Scotland [7].  Knights wearing armour could often exceed four hundred pounds, which required a very robust mount. While on military campaigns on the continent, Henry VIII regularly made use of his allies’ horses [8].  He also received many horses as diplomatic gifts from continental rulers. Amongst these, the most significant gift was that of twenty-five Spanish horses from the Emperor Charles V (Henry’s nephew by his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon), whose own equestrian portrait by Titian inspired subsequent equine iconography [9].  Larger and more refined horses were imported to England to create more suitable riding horses for Henry and his knights. Sally Mitchell dates the English import of hot-blooded horses, such as the Arab and the Barb, to roughly 1604 [10].

By the time of Charles I’s reign, shaggy ponies and heavy draught horses were acceptable as working horses, but a sophisticated ruler demanded refined mounts that resembled the more polished horses of the continental riding schools. Work horses and pack horses were being replaced by the “magnus equus,” or the “great and noble horse” [11].  Thus, dramatic changes in the depiction of horses in English art coincided not only with technical developments in painting, but also with the evolution of the English horse.

Trends in continental Europe had a strong influence on how horses were depicted in English art. A new crop of artists culled from the continent depicted new breeds of horses. For the first time since the Reformation, a cultural exchange was encouraged between England and the Roman Catholic states of Europe. English agents roamed the continent in search of Classical, Renaissance, and contemporary art, as well as artists willing to relocate to London [12].  Flemish artists, Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), particularly impressed English patrons. Despite English reverence for, and reliance upon their equine partners, horses rarely appeared in English art until Rubens and van Dyck introduced them early in the seventeenth-century.

Called the “very best of [Rubens’] pupils,” [13] van Dyck was very much influenced by his mentor. Rubens’ monopoly of equestrian portraiture at the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburg courts may have forced van Dyck to explore professional opportunities in England where he would prove to be a highly-sought after equestrian portraitist in his own right [14].  Rubens, probably the most highly regarded Baroque painter, had early on in his career devoted himself to the study of equine subject matter. Rubens painted several famous equestrian portraits, which helped to advance his career, such as The Duke of Lerma (1603), and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (1627). Most important to the evolution of equestrian portraiture may be Rubens’ Riding School, which depicts a horse and rider in three different positions, a format from which nearly all of the equestrian portraits of the Baroque period are derived. Along with highly advanced technical skills, continental artists brought a sophisticated equestrian iconography to England.

Major continental cities such as Paris, Naples, Madrid, Copenhagen, and Antwerp all had extensive “Haute Ecole” riding schools [15].  These strictly disciplined schools evolved primarily to develop advanced equestrian military techniques. Despite the English people’s long-standing dependence upon horses, such schools never developed in England. The Spanish Riding School in Vienna was particularly renowned throughout Europe. First documented in 1572, the Spanish Riding School began as the Institute of the Classical Art of Riding, practicing the Renaissance tradition of classical schooling. Spanish horses were famed for their beauty and athleticism in battle. Austrian Emperor Maximillian II imported Spanish horses to central Europe in 1562. Not long after, The Emperor’s brother, The Archduke Karl, founded a stud farm in Lipizza, thus creating a breed of horses called the Lipizzaners [16].

Spanish horses have been renowned since Ancient Roman times for their beauty and athleticism. “Caesar’s brilliant white horse, which Spain sent him” [17] was used alongside other Spanish horses by the Roman armies. Their classical confirmations, graceful movements, intelligence, vivaciousness, resilience and placid temperaments often distinguished Spanish horses [18]. When the Arabs reached Spain in 711, their refined, elegant horses were bred with local breeds, thus creating some of the finest riding horses in Europe. From then on mules and oxen bore the brunt of most agricultural labour. Breeds such as the Andalusian were not suited for pulling heavy loads, but were preferred for bearing saddles [19]. Contemporary descriptions of horses with Spanish bloodlines match perfectly the characteristics of the horses depicted by van Dyck.

Lipizzaner stallions had originally been bred and trained for military combat. Many of the manoeuvres of Classical schooling, such as Airs on the Ground and Airs above the Ground, had developed out of close range combat tactics. The Piaffe and the Passage manoeuvres, whereby a horse trotted or walked on the spot, allowed the rider to engage in hand to hand fighting with another mounted rider or foot soldiers. During Spanish Riding School performances, the Passage was demonstrated between two posts to emphasize the horse’s engagement of movement while not covering any ground [20]. The Pirouette, when the horse turns in a 360-degree circle on the spot, was also developed for the same reason as the Piaffe and Passage. In the Levade, an Air above the Ground, the horse raised itself upon its haunches elevating the rider to safety. The most spectacular moves, the Courbette and the Capriole, were offensive moves designed to intimidate the enemy. The Courbette consists of the horse raising itself upon its haunches and lunging forward in aggressive hops. The Caprioleconsists of the horse rearing up, leaping forward and then extending its hind legs midair in a potentially devastating kick.21 These manoeuvres were particularly frightening and destructive to ground troops. The classical moves of the Spanish Riding School are very similar to many of the iconographical poses developed for horse in equestrian portraiture. In Riding School, Rubens demonstrates direct knowledge of the new breeds of horses, as well as elements of the combat-derived discipline of “Classical Riding” [22].

Charles I on Horseback with M. de St. Antoine is thought to be van Dyck’s first of several equestrian portraits of Charles I. Van Dyck depicts The King riding a magnificent white horse through a triumphal arch. The work was originally hung at the end of the gallery at St. James’ Palace and was most likely commissioned for that spot. To the right of Charles is his attendant, the Seigneur de St. Antoine, carrying The King’s helmet, dressed in red, and wearing the black ribbon of Saint-Lazare and Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel [23]. To the left of Charles, at the foot of the arch, is a large shield bearing the royal coat of arms, atop of which is an enclosed crown hinting at The King’s imperial aspirations. An armour clad Charles I carries a baton and rides a white horse which resembles very much a Lipizzaner stallion. The popular Passage movement of the Spanish Riding School likely influenced the horse’s stance.

Van Dyck’s attention to detail is apparent throughout the entire painting. The King’s horse is particularly well rendered, with its refined head, delicate limbs, powerful hindquarters, deep chest and mighty neck. Van Dyck uses subtle tonal gradations to depict realistically the awe-inspiring musculature of this great horse. Unlike the extremely flat, awkward depictions of horses by artists of the English school, van Dyck demonstrates his knowledge of equine physiognomy as well as his observations of horses’ gaits. Likely, the horse depicted is of Spanish descent (thus of Arab origins), which explains its thin coat and skin, adapted from the warm, arid weather of North Africa. Earlier equine depictions by the English School reveal thick skin and coarse fur, adapted from the damp, cold climate of England. Thus, earlier English artists were limited by both a lack of technical knowledge as well as the physiognomies of their subjects.

The arch through which Charles I is riding functions compositionally to frame the dramatic pose of the horse and its rider, and is highly significant in terms of iconography. Neo-Classical architecture, again imported from the continent, was relatively new in England at the time. Not only does it frame the figure of The King, it also makes allusions to Ancient Rome and great rulers of the past. The purpose of triumphal arches in Ancient Rome was to welcome triumphant armies back to the heart of the empire. Charles I is shown without the escort of a band of soldiers, further enhancing his prestige and claim to absolute power. A lone servant, M. de St. Antoine, accompanies him. This solitary representation should be understood as symbolic of Charles I’s years of personal rule, when he governed England without parliament [24].

The Seigneur de St. Antoine was a master horseman in his own right. In 1603, he was sent to England by King Henry IV of France to deliver gifts of horses to Charles I, at that time still The Prince of Wales. St. Antoine remained in England as a riding master and equerry for the Royal Mews [25].  By including St. Antoine in the picture, van Dyck reveals the extent to which The King was susceptible to continental influences. It also reveals the significance of horses as diplomatic gifts. Furthermore, St. Antoine recalls the burgeoning absolute monarchy in France, lending credibility to Charles’ own claim to divine rule.

By depicting the horse frontally, as though approaching the viewer, van Dyck conforms to an established perspective which Rubens also utilized in Riding School. Even if van Dyck had not seen it, Charles I would have been familiar with Rubens’ Portrait of the Duke of Lerma, from his visit to Spain in 1623. Van Dyck also executed a portrait of The Marquis of Moncada with a horse in an identical position as that of Charles I. The pose of the horse is often significant in equestrian portraiture. In Charles I on Horseback with M. de St. Antoine, The King’s apparent ability at controlling such a powerful mount is meant to advertise his style of rule as powerful. In Rubens’ George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (1625), the Duke’s rearing horse connotes a dynamic rider prone to action and adventure. A steadfast horse would have rather indicated the authority and power of its rider. As it was, Villiers was a significant player in the seventeenth-century English equestrian scene. Appointed Master of the Horse in 1616 by James I, 1603-1625, Villiers was extremely successful in improving the quality of the royal bloodstock. Perhaps it was precisely his influence on improving English horses that most inspired Rubens. Equally important within the composition of Charles I on Horseback with M. de St. Antoine is the position of the viewer. Positioned such that s/he is below the horse and king, the viewer is thus subjugated by Charles I. The painting depicts a powerful image of Charles’ desire to rule absolutely, and provides an excellent example of van Dyck’s mastery of equestrian iconography.
Charles I at the Hunt is an innovative painting wherein van Dyck experiments with the traditional iconography of equestrian portraiture. By avoiding references to the continental influences of Titian or Rubens, van Dyck was possibly exploring equestrian traditions within the sphere of the English School [26].  Julius Held cites a much earlier work by an unknown artist from the British School, Portrait of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales (1603) which depicts Charles’ older brother dismounted by a slain stag, as a possible inspiration for van Dyck’s work. Van Dyck does not include any overt visual references to the hunt in his painting.

Charles I at the Hunt is theatrical in mood. The King is depicted in a three-quarter turn, looking over his left shoulder at the viewer. He appears as if he is “an actor coming on stage” amidst much pomp and circumstance [27].  Van Dyck includes a novel component in this painting, one only just introduced to English painting: The landscape. The figures of Charles and his horse offer a bold contrast with the expanse of sky in the background. The tree branches further frame The King by forming a canopy (of state?) over his head. Despite Charles being dismounted, van Dyck conveys all the authority and gallantry typically associated with equestrian portraits. Another possible domestic influence for this unique portrait of Charles I is Daniel Mytens’ Charles I and Henrietta Maria depart for the Chase (1630-1632). Mytens preceded van Dyck as “picture-drawer” to Charles I. The two works differ greatly in technical mastery. The musculature of Mytens’ horse is ill defined with a highly stylized head. There are, however, compositional similarities between Mytens’ work and van Dyck’s Charles I at the Hunt. Van Dyck may have borrowed the subject and position of the horse, but eliminated Henrietta Maria in order to make a tighter composition.

In contrast to other equestrian portraits of Charles I by van Dyck, Charles I at the Hunt depicts The King as a cavalier and not in armour. Slightly less formal than others, this painting reveals The King at leisure, still upholding his dignity and position as monarch. Charles is depicted wearing clothes suitable for a courtier, “the noble, almost tender figure…almost like a dandy,” [28] certainly not appropriate for hunting. The boots, breeches, and coat of the cavalier fashion are referred to as the van Dyck style, because of their popularity during the artist’s time in England [29].  Charles holds his gloves in his hands, which symbolizes authority and civility. The dark hat frames his face, emphasizing his features and prevents The King’s exquisite expression from being lost against the sky.
Within Charles I at the Hunt, van Dyck expertly solves a crucial pictorial dilemma. The composition supports van Dyck’s representation of Charles I as a powerful ruler. Rather than remain above his master’s head, the horse bows subserviently to Charles, revealing The King’s dominant position. Thus, the horse is depicted adopting the social mores of the court. Thereby, van Dyck not only contributes to the King’s majesty but he also solves the compositional inconsistencies associated with having a dismounted rider. It was out of the question for van Dyck to depict the horse as being taller than the King. Although the horse itself is well proportioned, it is depicted small in relation to its surroundings. A depiction of a larger horse would have detracted from the presence of Charles I [30].

Van Dyck depicts an equerry and a page within Charles I at the Hunt. The equerry holds The King’s horse, as no king could ever have been depicted holding his own horse. Both servants refrain from interacting with The King. Thus, despite his company, Charles I is portrayed as unique among men. Van Dyck is here combining the continental connotations of equestrian portraiture with the appropriate pastimes for an English noble. Charles appears at once as both the “cortegiano” and the “principe,” while also symbolizing the concept of the absolute monarch [31].  Van Dyck’s successful management of a potentially problematic composition allowed him to make his own significant contribution to the genre of equestrian portraiture [32].

Within Charles I on Horseback, van Dyck relies mainly upon established equestrian iconography, both English and continental. Isaac Oliver’s Henry, Prince of Wales (ca. 1610) is thought to be one of the first English equestrian portraits. Roy Strong recognizes the Venetian manner of this painting but suggests that Clouet’s portraits of the Valois kings and Rubens’ above-mentioned portrait of The Duke of Buckingham influence it [33]. Clouet’s works may have well been an inspiration but it would be impossible for Oliver to have had Rubens’ work in mind, since it was completed fifteen years later. Perhaps Oliver is more indebted to works such as Albrecht Dürer’s Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513); prints of which were then in circulation throughout Europe. While in Venice, Oliver would have seen Andrea del Verrocchio’s famous Equestrian Monument of Collioni, 1483-1488, in the Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo [34].  Verrocchio’s Collioni and its predecessor, Donatello’s Gattemalata, were both inspired by the above-mentioned fourth century monument to Marcus Aurelius. A “symbol of secular authority…the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius became the most influential source of state propaganda until the tank replaced the horse” [35].

Contemporaneous to van Dyck’s equestrian portraits of Charles I were the first equestrian statues in England. One of the many artists in the suite of Henrietta Maria upon her arrival from France was Hubert Le Sueur. Le Sueur’s Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, presently situated where Whitehall meets Trafalgar Square, rather unsuccessfully draws upon southern European traditions of equestrian statues. Originally commissioned by Lord Weston in 1630 for his garden at Roehampton [36], the piece was judged to look “more like a sausage than a Lipizzaner” [37]. Interestingly, the suit of armour worn by the King in this statue still exists and reveals that Charles was approximately five-foot-four-inches tall. By depicting Charles on horseback, van Dyck, and other artists, could literally portray him as larger than life. Van Dyck seems to have adapted the classical position of the equestrian monument for Charles I on Horseback. To avoid an abrupt view of the horse and rider in profile, van Dyck presents Charles’ mount on a slight angle, infusing the composition with dynamism and introducing a very baroque element to the work.

Although a secular work, Charles I on Horseback is sacred in that it shows The King “communing not with his subjects but with his maker” [38].  Charles wears a gold medallion of St. George, indicating his role as sovereign Knight of the Garter (the most important decorative order within English heraldry) [39]. On the tree to the right of the composition hangs a small tablet inscribed, “CAROLUS I REX MAGNAE BRITANIAE.” This title refers to Charles dual reign over England and Scotland [40]. Directly below this plaque, and significant because of this proximity, is a page holding an elaborate knight’s helmet bearing the plume of The Infanta [41]. Charles had sought the Spanish princess’ hand in marriage in 1623, to no avail. However, the depiction of this helmet indicates the Spanish influence in English politics at that time.
Art Historians have always recognized the similarities between van Dyck’s Charles I on Horseback and Titian’s equestrian portrait of Charles V. However, recently scholars have noted other influences. J. Douglas Stewart makes an interesting comparison between Charles I on Horseback and Dürer’s Knight, Death and the Devil [42]. Within this context, Charles I is conceived as the “good Christian knight.” The poses of the horses are nearly identical between the two paintings, revealing how iconic that particular pose had become.

It is to be assumed that Charles I’s mount is a stallion. Geldings were considered to be less courageous than stallions and therefore inappropriate for battle. Mares were “suitable only for women and priests” [43] The stallion has long been a symbol of virility and strength. Van Dyck renders the majority of the horse very realistically, but he may have taken some artistic liberty to express the horse’s power and virility. The horse’s powerful body is in stark contrast to its delicate ears. The ears’ swiveled position suggests that the horse is ultimately “listening” to the rider. By depicting the horse’s head slightly smaller and emphasizing its musculature in the neck, van Dyck makes clear the allusion to power which extends to Charles I; the character of the mount indicates that of the rider.
Anthony van Dyck’s Charles I on Horseback with M. St. Antoine, Charles I at the Hunt, and Charles I on Horseback represent a great shift in the depiction of horses in England. Artistic practices were evolving, but so too were the bloodlines of the horses being depicted. Van Dyck’s technical sophistication seems to have been ideally suited to depict the changing character of English horses. His sophistication extended to his knowledge of continental equestrian iconography as well. There is much to learn from van Dyck’s portraits of Charles I. However, it is equally important to consider the ramifications of his depictions of horses, independently as well as in relation to the King.



1. Julius Held, “Le Roi à la Ciasse,” Art Bulletin (Fall 1958): 149.
2. Calabrian Jordanus Ruffus quoted in Stuart Piggott, Wagon, Chariot, and Carriage: Symbols and status in the History of Transport (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992) 69.
3. Fred S. Kleiner, Christin J. Mamiya, & Richard G. Tansey, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 11th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth, 2003) 216.
4. Oliver Millar, Van Dyck in England (London: National Portrait Gallery, 1983) 51.
5. One hand is roughly the equivalent of 4.2 inches.
6. P.R. Edwards, “The Horse Trade in Tudor and Stuart England,” Horses in European Economic History: A Preliminary Canter, F.M.L. Thompson, ed. (Leeds: Leeds UP, 1983) 119.
7. Breeds of Livestock, online, 1 April 2004 <
8. Edwards, 119.
9. R.H.C. Davis, “The Medical Warhorse,” Horses in European Economic History: A Preliminary Canter, F.M.L Thompson, ed. (Leeds: Leeds UP, 1983) 12.
10. Sally Mitchell, The Encyclopedia of English Equestrian Artists (Suffolk: Antique Collector’s Club Press, 1984) 21. Hot-blooded refers to a type of horse originating in North Africa and the Middle East, which is far more agile and spirited than the bulky, even-tempered cold-blooded horses of Northern Europe and England.
11. Piggott, 90.
12. Millar, 9.
13. Millar, 10.
14. Gustav Gluck, “Van Dyck’s Equestrian Portraits of Charles I,” Burlington Magazine (May 1937): 212.
15. Michael Seth-Smith, The Horse in Art and History (London: New English Library, 1978) 39.
16. “The Spanish Riding School in Vienna,” Lipizzaner Online, March 29, 2004 <>
17. Lipizzaner Online, n.p.
18. Lipizzaner Online, n.p.
19. A. Gomez Mendoza, “The Role of Horses in a Backward Economy: Spain in the Nineteenth Century,” Horses in the European Economic Community, F.M.L. Thompson, ed. (Leeds: Leeds UP, 1983) 145.
20. Lipizzaner Online, n.p.
21. Lipizzaner Online, n.p.
22. Gluck, 211.
23. Millar, 50.
24. Roy Strong, Van Dyck: Charles I on Horseback (London: Penguin Press, 1972) 14.
25. Millar, 51.
26. Held, 147.
27. David Howarth, “The Royal Portrait: The Stuarts,” Images of Rule, Art and Politics in the English Renaissance, 1485-1649 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991) 136.
28. Strong, 42.
29. Francis M. Kelly & Randolph Schwabe, A Short History of Costume and Armour, vol. 1&2 (New York: Arco Publishing, 1972) 31.
30. Howarth, 135.
31. Held, 149.
32. Howarth, 135.
33. Strong, 54.
34. Strong, 50.
35. Howarth, 136.
36. Strong, 51.
37. Seth-Smith, 39.
38. Howarth, 139.
39. Strong, 59.
40. Strong, 45. Charles’ father, James I of England and VI of Scotland, was the son of Mary Stuart, Queen of France and Scotland, and inherited the English throne from his cousin, Elizabeth I, upon her death in 1603. Until William III passed the Act of Settlement, 1701, uniting the crowns of Scotland and England, the kings and queens of England were simultaneously the sovereign rulers of Scotland.
41. Strong, 20.
42. Douglas J. Stewart, “Hidden Persuaders’ Religious Symbolism in van Dyck’s Portraiture with a Note on Dürer’s Knight, Death, and the Devil,” Essays on Van Dyck (Toronto: National Gallery of Canada, 1983) 4.
43. Davies, 4.