Addressing the viewer with a subtly melancholic air, this depiction invests the formal conventions of portrait painting with a nervous restlessness. Philip Herbert was Earl of Montgomery (from 1605) during the reign of James I, and 4th Earl of Pembroke (from 1630) under the rule of Charles I. Herbert's aplomb and authority are heightened by the contained solidity and restraint of the pose, by his position slightly above the viewer's level and by his display of the wand of office of Lord Chamberlain. The sense of magnificence is increased by the glimpse of a dramatic landscape, the rich yellow curtain, and the luxurious lace and other expensive materials of his costume. Yet these assertions of rank and power are combined with signs of intellectual reflection and temperamental sensitivity. The beautifully painted hand is alive with an unusual combination of delicacy and electric energy, reinforcing the complexity of character perceptible in the refined elegance of the face.
When Anthony van Dyck arrived in England in 1632, the court of Charles I was one of the leading cultural centres in Europe. Charles I's love of the arts and his awareness of their potential to promote a desirable self-image for the monarch gave rise to a lively atmosphere that encouraged ideals of sophisticated learning and civilized behaviour. The portrait of Philip Herbert should be seen in the context of this courtly community, and van Dyck as the artist who could capture its concerns without resorting to stiff formalities. The earl, who performed in masques conducted at the court, exudes a persuasive bearing.
Herbert wears the ribbon of the Order of the Garter, an honour highly prized as a way of enhancing the prestige of the bearer. The earl was an enlightened and lavish patron of the arts.