A lost Van Dyck head study at the Prado?

November 28 2012

Image of A lost Van Dyck head study at the Prado?

Picture: Museo Prado

I'm hoping to wangle a chance to see this picture at the Prado tomorrow. It isn't usually on display, and I've not it published before. Although the Prado catalogue the picture in full as 'Van Dyck', it isn't in the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne. However, the 2004 catalogue was very conservative when it came to including head studies by Van Dyck - just 25 are listed, out of 744 works. 

Thanks to the Prado's excellent high-res images online, it's possible to get a good idea of the picture's quality. It's hard to be 100% sure from the photo, but I think this may well be by Van Dyck. The original oil on paper study has been extended on all sides, and laid onto another surface. The somewhat clumsy red/brown cloak is a later addition, as, probably, is the overly dark background.

The Prado website dates the study to 1618-20, but this feels too early to me. Interestingly, it is not included in 'The Young Van Dyck' exhibition, which may suggest that the Prado aren't sure how to place it. In my view, the handling is more redolent of studies I know from Van Dyck's second Antwerp period (1627-1632), with its subtle use of glazes, such that in the eye, even though it is only painted with barely a smudge of brown glaze, we can still see the sitter's expressive, upward glance. It reminds me of a similar profile head study we discovered here a few years ago (below, recently sold from the collection at Longleat), for the figure of St Joseph in Van Dyck's Holy Family of c.1630.

In fact, we are probably dealing here with an Italian period study, made between 1627-32. The head is almost certainly a study for the central Pharisee in The Tribute Money [Galleria di Palazzo Bianco, Genoa] (a picture for which we have no firm date).* As with most of Van Dyck's studies for religious pictures like this, the study above shows a less emphatically characterised head which, in the finished picture, eventually becomes more reflective of the composition's narrative. It allows us to see how Van Dyck took life studies of models in his studio, and turned them into the characters he needed for his finished pictures. 

* I am grateful to reader (and accomplished artist) Simon Watkins for pointing out the link to 'The Tribute Money'. I had initially flipped through the 2004 catalogue too quickly, and missed it - a lesson learnt!


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