The central figure in this work is George Gage, a notable art dealer and political agent in the 1620s, acting for King James I and then Charles I. Both he and Van Dyck were in Rome in 1622 and 1623, and it is highly likely that the painting was made then.
Van Dyck has depicted Gage as an elegant figure in the midst of a negotiation with a dealer in classical antiques. The dealer looks intently at him as he gestures towards the sculpture; while Gage may look diffident, he returns his gaze and seems about to speak. The figure in the background looks across them and directly at us. He holds the sculpture and is also pointing at it.
We could interpret this in different ways. He may be indicating the significance of the piece, or perhaps he is trying to tempt us as prospective purchasers. Either way, we feel drawn into the negotiations as participants as well as observers.
A clue to the identity of the central figure in this painting lies in the carvings on the stone pedestal – or perhaps it is a marble sarcophagus – against which he leans so nonchalantly. We can make out the top half of a coat of arms, divided in quarters with a saltire (X-shaped cross), next to a ’sun in splendour' (surrounded by stylised rays). This can be identified as the arms of the Gage family, from Firle in East Sussex; the ram’s head on the corner of the pedestal is the family crest.
We can be fairly confident that this is a portrait of George Gage, a notable connoisseur of art and a political agent sent to Rome in 1621 by King James I to try to negotiate the Pope’s dispensation for the marriage of his son, the future Charles I, to the Spanish infanta, Maria Anna. Since Anthony van Dyck was also in Rome in 1622 and 1623, it is highly likely that the painting was made then. Despite six years of trying, Gage’s negotiations with the pope failed and he meanwhile developed another speciality, acquiring paintings and antique sculptures for the great English collectors of the early seventeenth century. He became one of the most successful agents purchasing for Charles I’s art collection, at the time one of the greatest in Europe. It was mostly sold off after the king’s execution in 1649, but much of it was bought back by Charles II and it remains the core of the current Royal Collection.
Van Dyck has depicted Gage as a nonchalant English gentleman at ease in what may be intended to represent the portico of a classical villa in Rome. The man on the right, presumably a salesman who deals in antiquities, is clearly trying to interest Gage – looking intently at him as he gestures towards the sculpture. Gage may look diffident, but he returns his gaze and seems about to speak. The figure in the background is looking across them and directly at us; he holds the sculpture and is also pointing at it. We could interpret this in different ways: he may be indicating the significance of the piece, or perhaps he is trying to tempt us as prospective purchasers. Either way, we feel drawn into the negotiations as participants as well as observers.
Gage’s easy confidence is reflected in Van Dyck’s own supremely confident style. He paints in a highly economical way, suggesting the textures of fabrics with the minimum of brushstrokes. Only the faces of Gage and the man to his right are articulated in detail – the sculpture, the distant landscape and the sky in particular are only sketched in. Yet, viewed from a few paces back, the overall effect is convincing.
The picture has a significant place in the history of art collecting in Britain. It was owned by the great eighteenth-century artist Sir Joshua Reynolds before being bought by John Julius Angerstein. After Angerstein’s death, 38 of his pictures were bought by the British government to form the founding collection of the National Gallery in 1824.
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