The sketch, done in oil on paper, is typically thickly painted for a work by the young Van Dyck. Later in his career, partly to accommodate the ever-growing demand from patrons, Van Dyck developed a style that allowed him to paint more quickly, with a...

We are grateful to Professor Christopher Brown for confirming the attribution to Van Dyck, on inspection of the original. 
This previously unpublished and recently conserved study provides a fascinating insight into the working practice of one of the most important artists to work in England, Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Painted at the outset of the artist’s career as an independent master in Antwerp, in about 1616/18, this ad vivum depiction of a baby would have formed an important study for the artist to use in his studio when composing larger, multi-figured pictures with either religious or historical subjects. In religious pictures, cherubs were an essential part of setting the scene, and Van Dyck would have found it crucial to take studies of babies from life. In the present picture, one can feel the unsteady balance of a young baby being held up, with the unfinished hand suggesting that the picture was quickly painted, and in just enough time for Van...


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We are grateful to Professor Christopher Brown for confirming the attribution to Van Dyck, on inspection of the original. 
This previously unpublished and recently conserved study provides a fascinating insight into the working practice of one of the most important artists to work in England, Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Painted at the outset of the artist’s career as an independent master in Antwerp, in about 1616/18, this ad vivum depiction of a baby would have formed an important study for the artist to use in his studio when composing larger, multi-figured pictures with either religious or historical subjects. In religious pictures, cherubs were an essential part of setting the scene, and Van Dyck would have found it crucial to take studies of babies from life. In the present picture, one can feel the unsteady balance of a young baby being held up, with the unfinished hand suggesting that the picture was quickly painted, and in just enough time for Van Dyck to capture the essential anatomy of a baby standing. At the bottom of the picture, a quickly painted arm can be seen, which, at some time in the past has been partly painted over.

The sketch, done in oil on paper, is typically thickly painted for a work by the young Van Dyck. Later in his career, partly to accommodate the ever-growing demand from patrons, Van Dyck developed a style that allowed him to paint more quickly, with a thinner application of paint and a greater use of glazes. In his early works, however, we see paint applied almost sculpturally, as particularly seen in the head of the baby on the left with it thick impasto, and the several layers of paint used to build up the Rubensian folds of flesh in the legs and torso.

Van Dyck’s sketches and studies have received relatively little scholastic attention, compared to his larger, finished works. The 2004 catalogue raisonné of Van Dyck’s oeuvre [S. Barnes, N. de Poorter, O. Millar, H. Vey, Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings (Yale & London 2004)] 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.[1] The breakdown of this figure appears to suggest a greater use of studies in Van Dyck’s so-called first Antwerp period - 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) – although it is likely that he continued to use studies throughout his career, at least until he arrived in England, when (post-Reformation) the lack of demand for multi-figured religious pictures meant that he could focus instead on portraiture.

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’ [Barnes et al, p.389]. Some hint as to the extent to which Van Dyck might have made use of studies can be seen by looking at the practice of Rubens, for whom Van Dyck worked from about 1615. 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. 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 made his own version of this composition [National Gallery, London], he avoided the same mistake and gave Theodosius a different head). Therefore, if 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, as his career developed, that of his assistants.

The present study relates closely to a figure of the young Christ in a now lost composition by Van Dyck, Virgin with Child and Saint Anne [Barnes et al, p.140, no.I.A1]. The composition is known in a number of copies, and shows Christ in the same degree of profile seen in the present study, with identically painted flesh in the torso and arm, but with the right leg pushed further back as Christ reaches out towards Saint Anne.

The present study is the original of a number of copies of varying date, some of which have been accepted at various stages as works by Rubens and Van Dyck. In all of the copies, it is evident that the copyists have struggled to turn the original study, with its unfinished arm, into a more finished or saleable subject. For example, a later copy sold as ‘Studio of Van Dyck’ by Sotheby’s, London on 14th April 2011 (lot 25, oil on panel, formerly in the Goudstikker collection) abruptly truncates the arm, in an attempt to make it look as if the baby on the left is leaning on the shoulder of the baby on the right. Other versions have turned the study into a ‘Vanitas’, and have made the baby on the right hold a trumpet blowing bubbles (as seen in the early version in oil on paper formerly in the possession of Sir Joshua Reynolds, sold by Christie’s, London as ‘attributed to Van Dyck’ on 25th April 2008, lot 66) or holding grapes, as seen in the copy in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.

[1] This figure does not include grisailles.

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500 Years of British Art