New York

Imagine if we chose our favorite painters the way some people vote for president, by posing that famous question: “With whom would you rather have a beer?" If the choice were between Peter Paul Rubens and his disciple Anthony van Dyck, the answer would be obvious: Rubens would drink you under the table, while wenching, dancing at a kermesse, taking in some Tacitus, and pounding on a rommelpot. As for van Dyck, the more relevant question would surely be whether he wanted to have a beer with you—and the answer, I'm afraid, is probably not.

Unlike most painters of the Old Masters tradition, who rose from fairly modest circumstances, van Dyck was born into a well-to-do family of Antwerp silk merchants. Although not of the nobility himself, he was, in the words of his 17th-century biographer Giovanni Bellori, "resplendent in rich attire of suits and court dress" and his manners "were those of a lord rather than a commoner."

Indeed, the case can be made that van Dyck singlehandedly invented that surprisingly resilient genre, the British aristocratic portrait, which inspired everyone from Reynolds and Gainsborough in the 18th century to Whistler and Sargent in the 19th—not to mention all those inglorious imitators down to the present day who will never want for food or shelter as long as, somewhere in the world, there is a prosperous periodontist with immortal longings.

That being the case, it would be hard to conceive of an artist more retrograde to contemporary taste, or more hostile to the habits of our democratic age, than Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). But that hasn't stopped him from becoming the subject of an unusually fine show at the Frick, an institution that—and I mean this as a compliment—has rarely felt the need to cater to the profanum vulgus. Instead, it has maintained the loftiest standards imaginable, targeting art historians and collectors more than the man on the street. Perhaps it is no accident, then, that the Frick is admirably stocked with van Dyck's portraits, eight of them being on permanent display. And with ten others hanging a few blocks north at the Met, New York City is one of the best places in the world to appreciate this rarefied artist. Together with these holdings, 90 paintings, drawings, and engravings have now been assembled in the Frick exhibition, one of the most thorough examinations of the artist in recent memory.

Whereas Rubens was something of a late bloomer among artists, straggling into his thirties before finding his true idiom, van Dyck was one of the most precocious painters in the history of art. Even in his teens, he possessed an extraordinary ability to render a human face—often his own—with preternatural accuracy. To this he joined a rich, satisfying painterliness, and, above all else, the alchemical knack for ennobling even the commonest face with the verve and glamour of a courtier. This exhibition follows van Dyck from his early years in Antwerp to Genoa, back to Antwerp, and finally to England. There he became the court painter of Charles I, whom we now conceive of (together with most of the Stuarts of his generation) through the essentially British portraits of this Flemish master.

As remarkable as the quality of his work was the swiftness of its execution: Some 260 portraits survive from van Dyck's nine years in England, or roughly one every two weeks. This effortless mastery is also on display in the black-chalk drawings, mostly of fellow artists, that van Dyck included in his Iconographie series. Such a combination of beauty and skill has never been surpassed and has been equaled, if at all, only by Ingres and Degas two centuries later.

Entirely by design, van Dyck's strikingly naturalistic portraits reveal nothing about their sitters that we would care to know. In his portrait of Frans Snyders, languidly arrayed in black robes and set against a dark and shallow background, van Dyck is manifestly uninterested in the inner man. He does not assail his sitter, as Velázquez does, with the laser-like penetration of his gaze; nor does he seek out that glowing soul that shines forth from amid the ambient darkness of Rembrandt's portraits. We have little reason to suppose that Snyders—a fine still-life painter in his own right—was the lithe and sinuous serpent who appears in this portrait. In his opulence and splendor, he is a fiction, but a great fiction, of van Dyck's contrivance, even as he embodies the defining idea, the stock in trade, of all subsequent society portraits, that status is essence.

Yet van Dyck is not exactly superficial: He appears to believe deeply that the surface is all there is—or more exactly, all that matters. This focus is hardly new to Western art. One could make a similar claim for Ghirlandaio and Bronzino in the 15th and 16th centuries. But in both of those artists, the surface never presumes, as in van Dyck, upon the status of the soul. These Italian forebears sought to account only for the pure exterior form of their sitters, even as they left the in-dwelling spirit to the viewer's imagination. For the Flemish master, through the skill with which he spins his fiction, through the apparent naturalness with which his kings and counselors stand in a posture of exquisite ease, we are seduced into thinking that we are seeing a realistic portrait, a perfection of exterior form, a saturation of aristocratic spirit, that has never truly existed in the world.

It is this fact, perhaps more than any other, that makes Anthony van Dyck so difficult to love but so immensely easy to admire and enjoy.

James Gardner's latest book is Buenos Aires: The Biography of a City.