We are grateful to Dr Christopher Brown, Dr Susan Barnes and Malcolm Rogers for each independently confirming the attribution to Van Dyck upon first hand inspection of the painting.
This recently rediscovered head study is an exceptionally fresh and powerful example of Van Dyck’s ad vivum manner, and one of only a handful of head studies to survive from Van Dyck’s maturity in Antwerp.
Like several such studies by Van Dyck, it had previously been enlarged and the composition ‘completed’ by another hand, probably in the 18th or 19th century, thereby confusing Van Dyck’s bold autograph brushstrokes with the over-paint of a later and pedestrian hand(iii). Recent conservation, during which later canvas extensions and over-paint were removed, has revealed once more Van Dyck’s brilliantly fresh and vibrant conception.
Van Dyck’s portraits are celebrated for their bravura brushwork and powers of psychological penetration – qualities which are exemplified in the present work. The sitter’s expression is a complex and brilliant combination of hauteur and immense strength of personality, tinged with an air of melancholy which Van Dyck so often perceived in his subjects. Moreover, just as Van Dyck penetrates the personality of his subject, so the subject takes our measure as his gaze and presence burns out at us from the canvas with extraordinary intensity.
The brilliance of Van Dyck’s brush is emphasised by the artist’s ad vivum technique – the unblended strokes applied ‘wet in wet’ with extraordinary speed and dexterity. The spontaneity of the image is completed with a flourish of dark strokes at the lower left, where Van Dyck has cleaned his brush on the canvas.
Study for the Head of a Magistrate was executed as a preparatory work for Van Dyck’s important group portrait, The Magistrates of Brussels assembled around the Personification of Justice, painted for the Brussels Town Hall during Van Dyck’s sojourn to the Netherlands of 1634-5. Although that painting was destroyed during the French bombardment of Brussels in 1695, the composition is preserved in a modello which shows the sitter of the present study seated second from the left(iv).
In addition to the present work, ad vivum head studies by Van Dyck of two other magistrates made for the same composition (both virtually identical in size to the present painting) are preserved in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford(v). All three paintings are executed with the same bold spontaneity, and on canvases prepared with identical grey grounds. In each painting the ground has been thinly applied over a warm, pinkish priming, creating beautiful variations in tone across the canvas which Van Dyck employs to maximum effect.
As the connoisseur and art historian William Valentiner commented on seeing this painting in the 1930’s, the warm colour scheme and dry pasty technique are reminiscent of Van Dyck’s Italian period.(vi)
This painting is an important addition to Van Dyck’s oeuvre of ad vivum studies, not only on account of its relationship with Van Dyck’s lost composition, but also because it is one of only four head studies to have survived from the artist’s maturity in Antwerp (namely the two Ashmolean studies, and Head of a Child) (vii). The sitter’s astonishingly vivid presence and penetrating characterisation are heighted by its unfinished, ad vivum technique, making it one of Van Dyck’s most powerful portraits.
BIOGRAPHY OF SIR ANTHONY VAN DYCK
Van Dyck was born to prosperous parents in Antwerp on 22 March 1599. His talent was evident very early, and at the age of 10 his father apprenticed him to Hendrick van Balen. He became an independent painter around 1615, and was admitted to the Antwerp painters' Guild of Saint Luke as a free master by February 1618. Around this time, and possibly some years earlier, Van Dyck became an assistant and collaborator with Rubens, whose influence on the young artist was profound. Rubens referred to the nineteen-year-old Van Dyck as 'the best of my pupils'. The origins and exact nature of their relationship are unclear; it has been speculated that Van Dyck was a pupil of Rubens from about 1613, as even his early work shows little trace of van Balen's style, but there is no clear evidence for this. At the same time the dominance of Rubens in the small and declining city of Antwerp probably explains why, despite his periodic returns to the city, Van Dyck spent most of his career abroad.
In 1620, at the instigation of the brother of the Duke of Buckingham, Van Dyck went to England for the first time, where he worked for King James I and James VI. It was in London in the collection of the Earl of Arundel that he first saw the work of Titian, whose use of colour and subtle modeling of form would prove transformational, offering a new stylistic language that would enrich the compositional lessons learned from Rubens.
After about four months he returned to Flanders, but moved on in late 1621 to Italy, where he remained for six years, studying the Italian masters and beginning his meteoric career as a portraitist. He was mostly based in Genoa, although he also travelled extensively to other cities, and stayed for some time in Palermo in Sicily. For the Genoese aristocracy, then in a final flush of prosperity, he developed a new and splendid portrait style, drawing on the influences of Titian and Veronese as well as Rubens.
Van Dyck was gifted with an eye that saw nobility in the human presence, and he depicted his subjects with the brilliant colouring of Rubens and the Venetians. He portrayed his subjects in attitudes of natural and amiable grace, and with such physiognomic truth and vivacity that his portraits never fail to leave an indelible impression on the mind. He evidently charmed his patrons, and like Rubens was able freely to mix in aristocratic and court circles.
In 1627, he returned to Antwerp where he remained for five years. During that time he produced many religious works, including several important altarpieces, and also began printmaking. By 1630 he was described as the court painter of the Habsburg Governor of Flanders, the Archduchess Isabella.
In April 1632, Van Dyck returned to London and entered the service of Charles I as ‘Principal Painter in Ordinary’, and was knighted in the following year. He was provided with a house on the river at Blackfriars (then just outside the City and hence avoiding the monopoly of the Painters Guild) and was frequently visited by the King. A suite of rooms in Eltham Palace was also provided by the King as a country retreat for his favourite artist.
Van Dyck was an immediate success in England, rapidly painting a large number of portraits of the King and Queen Henrietta Maria, as well as their children. He painted many of the court, and also himself and his mistress, Margaret Lemon. In England he developed a version of his style which combined a relaxed elegance and ease with an understated authority in his subjects which was to dominate English portrait-painting to the end of the 18th century through artists such as Gainsborough and Reynolds, and indeed through to the 20th century in the work of John Singer Sargent.
Upon the death of Archduchess Isabella in 1634, Philip IV of Spain appointed his younger brother Ferdinand as Regent for the Netherlands, and Van Dyck once more returned to his native city to paint the new Regent, remaining there until 1635. It was at this time that Van Dyck was also given the important commissioned to paint The Magistrates of Brussels, for which the present painting is a study.
Van Dyck became a "denizen" (effectively a citizen of England) in 1638 and married Mary, the daughter of Lord Ruthven and a Lady in waiting to the Queen, in 1639-40. In 1640-41, as the Civil War loomed, Van Dyck spent several months in Flanders and France. He left again in the summer of 1641, but fell seriously ill in Paris and returned hurriedly to London, where he died soon after in his house at Blackfriars. He left a daughter each by his wife and mistress; both were provided for, and both ended up living in Flanders. He was buried in Old St. Paul's Cathedral, where the King erected a monument in his memory.
Van Dyck was the greatest master of the baroque portrait in Europe, and also one of the greatest religious painters of the age. His work is represented in almost every important museum and gallery around the world.
(i) The painting is inscribed on the reverse of the old lining canvas ‘Vandyck. ipse pinx.t. / Collection de Tallard’. While the present painting is not recorded in the catalogue of the sale of the Duc de Tallard (Paris, 22 March – 13 May 1756), it may nevertheless have once formed part of that collection and been bequeathed, or sold from the collection at another juncture. With regard to the early provenance, it is interesting to note that 17th century sources record two large collections of head studies by Van Dyck in Antwerp, which could have included the present painting. As Horst Vey notes in relation to Van Dyck’s study, Head of a Child (Cat III.198, p.389, ibid) “the Antwerp inventories are full of references to head studies that cannot all have been early works. The most surprising group of them is documented in 1668 in the posthumous inventory of Canon G. van Hamme: ‘Twenty little pieces by the knight Van Dyck, being head studies in various manners’.” Vey also notes that “In 1680, 16 ‘troniën’ of various kinds by Van Dyck were in the inventory of the Antwerp painter Pieter van Lint and his wife.”
(ii) Van Dyck’s authorship of the present painting had been long been accepted by scholars (including Valentiner, Gluck and Larsen in the 20th century), until it was questioned by the late Horst Vey, who was understandably confused by its formerly over-painted and extended state. Accordingly he included it under lost compositions and copies in the 2004 monograph on Van Dyck, concluding that it ‘may be a copy’ (of a lost original).
(iii) There are many instances where Van Dyck’s head studies were extended by other hands at a later date, almost certainly to make them more saleable and ‘substantial’ (viz. Van Dyck, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, by Susan Barnes, Nora De Poorter, Sir Oliver Millar & Horst Vey, Cat nos I.11, I.24, I.91, I.93 and I.94-98). Prior to its recent conservation, the present painting had been extended by a later hand with strips of canvas measuring 5.5cms at both the top and bottom, and by 3.5cms at each side.
(iv) Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings (ibid), Cat. III.169. The modello, painted on panel (26.3 x 58.5 cm) is preserved in the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris.
(v) Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Painting (ibid), Cat. III.196 & 197.
(vi) W.R. Valentiner (who in the course of his long career was director, variously, of the J. Paul Getty Museum, the L.A. County Museum and the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts) wrote to a former owner of this painting, Sydney M. Shoenberg Sr.; “May I congratulate you sincerely upon the acquisition of the beautiful portrait by Anton Van Dyck (sic) which I studied carefully when I was in New York. It represents not only a person of charm and dignity, but it is at the same time executed in the most brilliant manner of Van Dyck’s 2nd Antwerpian period showing clearly the influence of his studies of the great Venetian masters in Italy” (private correspondence dated 29 November 1933). In the following year, Valentiner wrote again with regard to the painting: “The portrait of the handsome gentleman is brilliantly executed and spirited in expression; in the warm colour scheme and the dry pasty technique it reminds one of the works of the artist executed in Italy. The dramatic and vivid expression of the dark eyes, the nervous curves of hair and moustache, the light touches of the highlights on the collar are characteristic for the master whose brushwork can be well studied in this painting on account of its excellent condition.” (correspondence provided by the Saint Louis Art Museum, dated 30 January 1934).
(vii) Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Painting (ibid), Head of a Child, Cat. III.198 (whereabouts unknown). Vey notes of that painting that “in contrast to the early years, this seems to be the only head study now known to date from the second Antwerp period” (the studies for The Magistrates of Brussels strictly forming part of Van Dyck’s 1634/5 sojourn to the Netherlands, rather than the second Antwerp period).