Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)
This is a rare work in many senses. For a start, the relatively un-ostentatious clothes of the sitter seem to suggest that they are non-royal, making it untypical in Van Dyck’s portraiture of children in the period following his return from Italy in 1627
This sensitive portrait of a young girl – whose identity remains tantalizingly unknown – is a recent addition to Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s oeuvre and is a superb example of his skills as painter of children...
This is a rare work in many senses. For a start, the relatively unostentatious clothes of the sitter seem to suggest that they are non-royal, making it untypical in Van Dyck’s portraiture of children in the period following his return from Italy in 1627, after which date the majority of his child sitters came from ruling dynasties. Furthermore, the sitter is shown by herself and not with other children or a supporting adult, which is true of many of the other child portraits by Van Dyck. The result is a work of startling presence and freshness.
Van Dyck’s first essays in child portraiture date to the period he spent in Genoa from 1623-4. Indeed, his time in Italy was to be the highpoint of his work in this genre. As he did at so many other points in his career, Van Dyck turned to Titian (active c. 1506, d.1576) as his model, specifically to his portraits of Clarissa Strozzi [Gemäldegalerie] and Ranuccio Farnese [National Gallery of Art]. In these, Titian had succeeded in portraying children as more than just miniaturised adults – as was often the case in the fairly uncommon instances of child portraiture in this period – but instead as human beings in their own right, with independent thoughts and emotions.
We see exactly this in the present portrait. Standing with her body turned slightly towards us, the sitter looks out at the viewer with a sideways glance. In a touching gesture, perhaps one of nervousness, the sitter clutches at her apron. The fan that she holds in her right hand looks oversized and, like the column pedestal next to which she stands, reminds us that the scale is very much that of a child. Unlike many of his portraits of adult sitters, in which he often used a separate model for the hands, Van Dyck has here realised sitter’s hands with exquisite individualism, with the diminutive proportions and chubby fingers revealing them to be very much those of a child.
Van Dyck’s second Antwerp period marked a turning point in his career. His years in Italy had helped only to cement the reputation that he had earned as Peter Paul Rubens’s (1577-1640) favourite and his best student. In 1628, following his return and perhaps conscious of the death of his sister the year before, he made a will, a gesture that reflects his graduation from student to master in his own right. Over the following four years, the artist brought his recent experiences in Italy to bear on the art of his native city. Benefiting from Rubens’s absence from Antwerp on business at the courts of Madrid and London, Van Dyck was able to establish a flourishing practice of his own in Antwerp, whose only rival was that of another talented product of Rubens’s studio, Jacob Jordaens (c.1593-1678). Late in 1628, in a mark of his new stature, he was awarded a valuable gold chain by the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566-1633) in thanks for painting her portrait. In July 1631, perhaps hoping to seek new opportunities following the return of Rubens, he travelled to the Hague, where he proceeded to transform the portraiture of the court of the House of Orange. The experience was a reassuring one for Van Dyck as it showed that it was possible for him, a Catholic artist, to work successfully and comfortably in a Protestant country. The result of this was that in 1632 he travelled to London to work for the court of Charles I (1600-1649). Within a year, Van Dyck – who had been known to the court since his first visit in 1620-1 – had been made ‘principalle Paynter in Ordinary to their Majesties’, leapfrogging the capable but less talented artist Daniel Mytens (c.1590-1647), who had been working as the principal court portraitist for the past seven years. By 1634, Mytens, forced to work at times from Van Dyck’s models, had decided to return home.
So who could this sitter be? Sadly, few clues could be found in the provenance, which could only be traced back to the nineteenth century. The prominently displayed cross worn by the sitter tells us only that she was likely a Catholic.
Nevertheless, the provenance of the portrait suggests that it has always been a highly coveted work, at times even dangerously so. One of its first recorded owners was no less a figure than Prince Talleyrand (1754-1838), the minister who famously managed to serve from the reign of Kings Louis XVI (1754-1793) to Louis-Philippe of France (1773-1750), whilst maintaining his position during the years of the Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire. During the Second World War, it was looted from a cadet branch of the Rothschilds – whose family had been its rightful owners for much of the past century – by the Nazis, before being rightfully restituted in 1946. It remained in the possession of the family until it was sold at auction in 2010 as a work by an unknown Flemish artist. Following its acquisition by this gallery, multiple layers of discoloured varnish and overpaint which previously masked its qualities were removed, and it is now accepted as an autograph work by Van Dyck.