The Empire Strikes Back

June 16 2011

Image of The Empire Strikes Back

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

In The Times and on the BBC’s Today programme yesterday morning was news of one of the recent Van Dyck discoveries included in our exhibition ‘Finding Van Dyck’. The story was later picked up in a rather muddled piece by Channel 4 news.

The picture, Study of the Head of a Woman (above), was bought at the Chatsworth ‘Attic Sale’ handled by Sotheby’s. It was catalogued as ‘Circle of Rubens’. Briefly, here’s just three reasons why I think the study is by Van Dyck.

  1. The same head appears in two larger compositions by Van Dyck, both painted in about 1630; Achilles Among the Daughters of Lycomedes (Schonborn Collection), and Adoration of the Shepherds (Church of Our Lady, Dendermonde). 
  2. In the Achilles painting, the woman’s head is used in the lower centre, and has been rotated slightly for the figure looking up at Achilles. In the Adoration picture, the study has been inverted, and used for the shepherdess looking down at Christ. (I would illustrate both, but don't yet have permission to reproduce them online).
  3. In both of the above pictures, the heads follow the study closely, even down to details such as the highlight on the top lip, and the shadows in the cheek. 

We are left, therefore, with two plausible options – either it is a copy after the Achilles or Adoration pictures. Or it was made by Van Dyck in preparation for those pictures.

We can immediately rule out option 1, that it is a copy. Not only is it too impulsive, animated and well painted to be by a copyist (or even a studio assistant), it is also at a different angle and with different hair, thus ruling out the possibility that it was painted after either of the larger works.

In response to inquiries from the BBC and Channel 4, Sotheby’s issued the following statement:

Sotheby’s carefully considered the painting when cataloguing it for sale, and reject the recent attribution to Van Dyck. Six out of seven of the world’s leading specialists in this field whom Sotheby’s has consulted also categorically reject the attribution to Van Dyck (the only one supporting the Van Dyck attribution being the same specialist Philip Mould consulted).  The overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion – consistent with Sotheby’s original cataloguing – is that the painting is by an anonymous Flemish artist working in the 17th century, ultimately inspired by Peter Paul Rubens. 

But here’s three curious things: [more below]

  1. At the time of writing, neither Sotheby’s nor their six experts have been to see the picture since it was cleaned. As you can see from the above comparison, the picture now looks rather different to how it did when sold at Chatsworth. The surface was covered in an old discoloured varnish, about a third of which had ‘blanched’. The expert who has seen it, let us call him ‘no.7’, is convinced by our argument. This probably tells you something about the need to see the painting (in fact any painting) in the flesh before venturing an opinion on the attribution. 
  2. Sotheby's six experts have not been presented with the results of our research, including access to close-up photographs of the relevant sections of the Achilles and Adoration paintings. These photographs were specially commissioned by us, making close comparison of the three heads possible for the first time. 
  3. The six have also not seen the results of our technical analysis of the painting. Paint analysis, x-rays and infra-red reflectography have confirmed our initial belief that the study has been ‘finished’ by a later hand. The original canvas has been added to a panel (which bears an Antwerp panel makers mark datable to c.1638 onwards) and then extended. The background, the bun in the hair and the brown drapery are all therefore later additions. Such effort presumably indicates that the picture was once considered a work of value. But more importantly, unless the six experts knew with certainty where in the painting Van Dyck’s involvement ended and where the later hand began, then no reliable opinion on the attribution is possible.


As a historian by training, I would always hesitate to make an opinion unless I had seen all the available evidence. I presume the same goes for art historians.

As Finding Van Dyck intended to show, there is still a great deal we do not know about Van Dyck. His use of sketches and preparatory studies has been particularly under-researched by scholars. Here’s an interesting statistic: the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné lists just 25 pictures that may reasonably be called preparatory studies in oil, out of a total of 744 works. The great majority of these studies relate to works other than portraits, that is, large multi-figured religious and clissical scenes. The breakdown of this figure is more revealing still – of the 25, 22 are given to Van Dyck’s first Antwerp period (until 1621), one to his Italian period (1621-27), one to his second Antwerp period (1627-32), and one to his English period (1632-41). 

The Chatsworth study is a second Antwerp period work. But according to the 2004 catalogue, there is only one other work for us to compare it to. (It is worth noting, incidentally, that the only Italian period study accepted in the 2004 catalogue is also painted in oil on canvas, which was added to a panel later and extended.)

Even allowing for Van Dyck’s change in technique after he first left Antwerp, such a discrepancy in the number of accepted Van Dyck studies in existence strikes me as untenable. Many more must once have been known. So where are they now? A number of manuscript inventories from the 17th Century attest to both their survival and popularity, such as that of Canon G. van Hamme, which records ‘Twenty little pieces by the knight Van Dyck, being head studies in various manners, standing above the gilt leather hanging’ and ‘thirteen head studies above the gilt leather, by Rubens as well as Van Dyck’. 

Some hint as to the extent to which Van Dyck might have made use of studies can be seen in even the most cursory look at the practice of his one-time master, Rubens. Rubens would execute a number of head studies of the same model, usually in oil on panel, which would then be used repeatedly by him and his assistants in any number of compositions, rather like spare parts. Look closely at Van Dyck's large classical and religious scenes, and you will occasionally see the same head again and again. Some of Rubens’ pictures even featured the same model more than once, such as Saint Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna], where the same bearded sitter is used to represent Theodosius and, somewhat incongruously, the figure immediately next to him. Interestingly, when Van Dyck (who one senses was a more conscientious and less over-worked, or dare we say it, less idle, artist than Rubens) made his own version of this composition [National Gallery, London], he avoided the same mistake and gave Theodosius a different head. If, as is widely accepted, Van Dyck supervised a large studio workshop throughout his career he must, like Rubens, have made significant use of sketches, both for his own use and that of his assistants. Only by discovering new works will we ever understand this fascinating aspect of Van Dyck’s career. 

Discoveries such as the Chatsworth study suggest that Van Dyck used his head studies in much the same way as Rubens when composing large group scenes, moving and even mirroring the various heads to fit where appropriate. They would almost certainly have been conceived for more than one use, and doubtless for collaboration with his studio assistants when directing the beginnings of his large canvasses. Such a practice may suggest laziness to some, but it would have seemed perfectly normal to any artist commissioned to paint the same subjects over and over again, both for his own reference and that of his assistants. It must be that there are many more examples of similar sketches waiting to be discovered.

There are two plausible references to a head of a woman by Van Dyck in the 18th Century in the collection of Lord Burlington at Chiswick (later inherited by the Devonshires). The attribution was then evidently changed to Rubens, as seen on the frame. 

Anyway, you can always come and judge all this for yourself in the exhibition, which runs until 13th July.  

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.