A new Van Dyck discovery at the Royal Collection

May 15 2013

Image of A new Van Dyck discovery at the Royal Collection

Pictures: Royal Collection, top, and below, Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris

An exciting amendment to the Royal Collection's online catalogue - the above picture used to be called a copy of a Van Dyck, but has now been upgraded to Van Dyck in full. The text states:

This was until recently believed to be a contemporary copy after a lost Van Dyck portrait. It has however been convincingly suggested that this is the Van Dyck original: the handling certainly has the freshness and vigour of an original rather than a copy and the quality is sufficient to suggest Van Dyck's hand.

The sitter cannot be identified but the portrait belongs to the artist's second Flemish period (c.1630), when he painted a number of sitters in this particular format. Additions appear to have been made to the top and bottom of the canvas and it is possible that the fictive stone window was added alter.

I'm pleased to say that the 'convincing suggestions' came from, er, me. The picture, which is probably first recorded in the Royal Collection in 1747, had been listed as a copy in the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne (entry no. III.A31), with the late Sir Oliver Millar regarding it as 'probably a contemporary copy of a portrait painted c.1630'. However, I always thought it had a chance of being right from the illustrations available, and so asked the Royal Collection about two years ago if I could see it. They kindly showed it to Philip Mould and I in their store room at Hampton Court, where, under bright lights it was apparent that the face was of very high quality, and that the dress had in fact been finished off by a later hand. A different collar can be seen underneath part of the present one. Philip and I had no doubts at all that the head was by Van Dyck, with the described oval and parts of the costume being later additions. This seems to have been the common fate of a series of head studies Van Dyck painted in Antwerp in the early 1630s, some of which are thought to have been studies for his large group portrait The Magistrates of Brussels. Sadly, the original picture was destroyed in 1695 when the French army bombarded Brussels, but the composition is known in a grisaille sketch by Van Dyck now in the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

It is conceivable that the Royal Collection's newly accepted study relates to the figure on the far left of the grisaille. A similar (and fully accepted) head study, probably also with a later oval, is in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Possibly, the picture in the Muzeum Naradowe in Poznan which was also rejected as a copy of a lost original in the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue, is also an original Van Dyck head with later additions.  

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