Page 12 - Finding Van Dyck

Basic HTML Version

When it comes to identifying lost paintings, the most difficult
cases are those that appear without any supporting evidence in
the form of documentation, provenance or past attribution. Such
pictures call for a straightforward assessment of aesthetic quality
– simply by looking at the painting, is it possible to tell who
painted it? Can a physical observation of the canvas, the way
the paint is applied, the composition, and the characterisation
of a sitter’s face alert the viewer to the presence of a portrait by
an artist like Van Dyck?
The ability to tell almost instinctively whether a picture is, as we
say in the trade, ‘right’ or not, is defined by art historians as
connoisseurship, a word derived from the Latin
to get to know. The theory behind connoisseurship is that the
repeated study of an artist’s work allows one to become so
familiar with his or her style and technique that it can be
easily recognised, just as we may recognise the author of
a letter not from their signature at the end, but from their
handwriting at the beginning. Van Dyck prided himself on
his connoisseurship, and was asked for advice by those
acquiring paintings for Charles I.
With some artists, connoisseurial judgements are simpler
than others. For example, the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ artist
Pieter Jansz. Saenredam (1597–1665) had a reasonably
distinctive style and confined himself mainly to painting
church interiors. He had only two pupils, neither of whom
went on to become artists in their own right. He has been
called ‘a low risk case’,
a fact which may explain why a
painting catalogued as ‘Studio of Saenredam’ at Bonham’s
in London in December 2010 with an estimate £20–30,000
sold for £1,476,000 after fierce bidding between some of the
world’s top Old Master dealers. Their opinion was that the
painting displayed all the hallmarks of a work by Saenredam,
and the lack of any credible alternative candidate as an artist
gave each of them the confidence to bid strongly.
Sadly, connoisseurship is never an easy exercise with
Van Dyck, and he is an artist who would certainly be called
a ‘high risk case’. The connoisseur of Van Dyck’s paintings
must navigate a complex range of attributional nuances. On
the one hand there are straightforward copies, and on the other
there are works by the master himself. But between these two
extremes the dividing lines become very blurred. First, Van
Dyck’s legacy was so dominant that the great majority of English
17th Century portraits bear a Van Dyckian impression, from
the copying of his compositions to the deliberate aping of his
technique. Then, as we shall discuss below, we have to contend
with Van Dyck’s studio, in which he employed talented artists
who were trained to paint exactly as he did, often producing a
number of repetitions of his own portraits, especially of royal
sitters. The potential for confusion is endless. Is a picture a
copy painted by a studio assistant, or is it in fact a second, or
a third, or even (in the case of Mary Stuart) a fourth version by
Van Dyck himself? Harder still is telling the difference between
a portrait painted by Van Dyck and one that was painted by
Van Dyck and a studio assistant, as can be seen in
The Holy Family
. To complicate matters yet further, Van Dyck’s
peripatetic career and his restless inventiveness meant that his
style and technique constantly evolved. A portrait painted by
Van Dyck in Genoa in 1626 can look radically different to one
painted in Antwerp just four or five years later.
Van Dyck connoisseurship is therefore fraught with difficulties.
The dangers have even been demonstrated by the artist’s
recent historiography, for the number of paintings thought to be
by Van Dyck has ballooned wildly. In 1988, the late Professor
Erik Larsen published a two volume
catalogue raisonné
contained 1047 paintings.
So many of these were manifestly
not by Van Dyck that the catalogue became something of a joke
amongst art historians. Nevertheless, the book’s mere existence
meant that, for a time, Larsen was seen as a major authority on
Van Dyck by collectors and auction houses, leading to further
Chapter 1
Knowing Van Dyck
See R. W. Lightbown, ‘Van Dyck and the Purchase of Paintings for the English
Court’, in
The Burlington Magazine
, Vol. CXI, No. 796 (July, 1969), pp. 418–421,
and particularly the letter of 16th Feb 1636 discussing a Raphael, p.420.
David Carrier, quoting Gary Schwartz discussing Saenredam in ‘In Praise of
Connoisseurship’, in
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
, Vo.1, No.2
(Spring, 2003), p. 166.
Bonhams Old Master Paintings, London, 8th December 2010, sale no. 17863,
lot 61: ‘The North transept and Choir Chape of the Sint Janskerk, Utrecht’, oil
on panel, 50.6 x 40.7 cm. Price includes buyer’s premium. Unfortunately, we are
not able to illustrate the painting. It is, however, available to view online on the
Bonhams website.
Erik Larsen,
The Paintings of Anthony Van Dyck
, 2 Vols., (Freren, 1988).