Van Dyck 'Selfie' update

February 17 2014

Image of Van Dyck 'Selfie' update

Picture: Philip Mould & Co.

The National Portrait Gallery has successfully argued for an extension to the export bar on Van Dyck's c.1640 Self-Portrait. This means they have another 5 months to try and raise £12.5m, which is the sum required to match the picture's sale price. The NPG has already raised a quarter of that amount, from bodies such as the Art Fund, the Monuments Trust, and also (impressively) nearly a million from smaller donations made by members of the public.*

I have to say that, although Van Dyck is my favourite artist, I never thought he would be this popular amongst the wider museum-going public. The picture itself has really caught on, and is regularly seen in the media - last week, it was on the front page of The Times, listed as the no. 5 top self-portrait of all time (Rembrandt was no. 1). In large part, this is due to the innovative campaign run by the NPG and the Art Fund, who have cleverly taken to social media to get their message across - you can now even get a Van Dyck 'Twibbon' for your Twitter profile. I'll still be surprised if the picture is 'saved', but it's really impressive to see the efforts being made to keep it. 

Elsewhere in the press, the picture was the subject of one of Brian Sewell's (mercifully rare) forays into the outer edge of art history's realm. In the Evening Standard, the Great Brian suggested that the portrait was painted by... two people! The head, he said was by Van Dyck, but the body by someone else, perhaps even Sir Peter Lely:

I sense dissonance between the face and the costume, as though two quite opposing aesthetics are at work. Does the head sit easily on the bust, the shoulder more brilliantly lit than the face? What exactly is the form of the wide collar and how is it related to the neck? Has the hair been extended over the collar to disguise this awkwardness? It is of a darker tone and subdued definition.

One question leads to another. Is it possible that Van Dyck painted no more than his face and rather shorter hair, and left posterity an unfinished portrait, to be completed by another painter? Was the canvas originally rectangular, now reduced to an oval? Examination of the reverse might give us an answer, for we can tell a great deal from distortions in the warp and weft. And if not by Van Dyck, then by whom is the costume? Could it be by Peter Lely, in whose collection there was Van Dyck’s “Own picture in an Oval” of similar size (measurements vary when paintings are taken from their frames)?

To this end, Brian demanded that the NPG commission x-rays and infra-red images to see if his theory was right. regular readers will know what a fan of Brian's I am - but oh dear, where to begin? Has any art historian, to say nothing of any Van Dyck scholars, ever suggested this two-hand theory before? Nope. The picture was originally painted as an oval, as you can tell from the image above, where the paint in the drapery stops short of the edge of the canvas. In other words, it hasn't been cut down. Looking at the back of the painting wouldn't tell you much, as it has been re-lined. The picture Brian mentions in Lely's inventory is in the fact the picture the NPG is trying to buy - Lely even made his own copy of it (below), which we recently discovered here at Philip Mould & Co. Before that, it was almost certainly in Van Dyck's own collection. The Lely copy too shows that the painted surface stopped short of the canvas edge. And suffice to say, x-ray and infra-red reveal that the picture was painted all at the same time. Which is in fact what even a pretty cursory look with the naked eye tells you in any case. But then Brian does like to question attributions, as he did with Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks, and quite a few of the exhibits in the National Gallery's recent Leonardo exhibition. He is what the connoisseur Max Friedlander used to call a 'Nein-sager'. 

This is, of course, only the latest salvo in Brian's apparent campaign against the painting, which can only, I presume, benefit the overseas buyer. by contrast, more enthusiastic coverage of the self-portrait was found recently in the Telegraph and also the Wall Street Journal.

Incidentally, Lely's copy shows that the background to Van Dyck's self-portrait was originally a slightly later shade of dark brown, and that it has either been glazed over by a later hand (Brian must have missed this), or, more likely perhaps, been darkened by a combination of old-varnish and dirt. The two curious looking black round smudges to the right of Van Dyck's buttons seen in the Lely copy are in fact there in the original** (they must be pentimenti of sorts) but are obscured by the later over-paint. 

You can read more about the Van Dyck self-portrait, and its history, in my 'Finding Van Dyck' exhibition catalogue.

Update - interesting to see the official note of the Export Reviewing Committee's decision on the self-porrait. It states that;

All ten members voted that it met all three of the Waverley criteria. The painting was therefore found to meet the first, second and third Waverley criteria on the grounds that it was so closely connected with our history and national life its departure would be a misfortune; that it was of outstanding aesthetic importance; and that it was of outstanding significance for the study of seventeenth century painting and in particular the portraiture of Sir Anthony Van Dyck. 

I believe a clean sweep of votes like this hardly ever happens.

Update II - for perhaps the best selfie yet taken, albeit unintentionally, see here.

*Regular readers will know I'm in something of a quandry on this one, given that Philip Mould & Co., for which I work, sold the picture to an overseas buyer.  

** If you can't see it, take my word for it. I've looked at the picture pretty much every work day for the last four and a bit years. 

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