Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)
The present head only appears in The Betrayal of Christ, although as a study of movement, it bears a striking comparison to, and may have influenced, the depiction of the female figure in Drunken Silenus, also painted during Van Dyck’s first Antwerp period...
This energetic head sketch in oils by Sir Anthony Van Dyck was painted c.1620-1, and is a preparatory study for the torch-bearing figure in the background of The Betrayal of Christ, one of the artist’s most important early compositions...
This energetic head sketch in oils by Sir Anthony Van Dyck was painted c.1620-1, and is a preparatory study for the torch-bearing figure in the background of The Betrayal of Christ, one of the artist’s most important early compositions.
The Betrayal of Christ shows the moment Judas identifies Christ to the Sanhedrin in Gethsemane, at the foot of Mount of Olives. The scene, which is shown at night, is highly charged, with a frenzy of forms, both defenders and aggressors, clambering to reach the unperturbed Christ as an unidentified figure places a noose around his neck. Despite the chaos which surrounds him, Christ remains calm and dignified as he holds Judas’ hand and tilts his head towards him. The composition demonstrates the young Van Dyck’s ability to fuse, in a clear and cohesive manner, a raw range of human emotion with complex forms and vastness of scale.
As one of the most significant commissions of Van Dyck’s first Antwerp period (he moved to Italy in October 1621), The Betrayal of Christ required meticulous planning, and we know the young artist spent many months exploring compositional ideas ahead of translating the subject to canvas. As well as an oil sketch for the head of Christ [whereabouts unknown], seven exploratory drawings for the composition also survive, and allow a rare glimpse into the development of the composition.
The most highly finished drawing, or rather modello, is that in the collection at The Hamburg Kunsthalle, which is ‘squared up’ for transfer onto canvas and shows the torch-bearer at the centre left, behind a man in armour. This is the first time in the preparatory stages that our figure appears, and although there is no consensus regarding the order in which the three known versions of The Betrayal of Christ were painted, it is probable that our study was undertaken sometime between the completion of the Hamburg drawing and before the first attempt at the composition in oils.
It is known that Van Dyck, like his master Rubens, made studies of heads of live models for reference when painting large-scale historical or religious compositions with multiple figures. In some instances, the same head would be utilised in a number of different works painted years apart, and on occasion the studies were inverted before being inserted into a composition. The present head, however, only appears in The Betrayal of Christ, although as a study of movement, it bears a striking comparison to, and may have influenced, the depiction of the female figure in Drunken Silenus, also painted during Van Dyck’s first Antwerp period.
The majority of the surviving head studies by Van Dyck were painted during his first Antwerp period, and they vary considerably in stylistic approach, demonstrating the young artist’s effortless versatility. The present work, for example, is incredibly fluid, with a level of spontaneity not dissimilar to a quick, exploratory ink sketch on paper, whereas the study for the head of Christ for the same composition and painted around the same date (although known only from a black and white photo), appears more considered and cautious. A more comparable study in stylistic terms in An Apostle (Jude?) in the collection at the Louvre, which originated as a study for the helmeted man holding Christ’s arm. The Apostle is painted on a panel support, which allows for greater definition than canvas, but shares the same excited spontaneity as the present work and likewise shows a liberal use of paint, with confident daubs of white highlighting on the eyes similar to the present work.
Typically, but not exclusively, preparatory studies by Van Dyck were undertaken in oil on paper, whereas the present work was painted on canvas, a far more expensive material, perhaps indicative of its perceived significance to the artist. Examination of the canvas edges also suggests this study was previously part of a larger sheet, and was likely one of a number of head studies painted on a single piece of canvas, much like Two Studies of a Bearded Man, painted around the same time and sold at auction in 2010. There are numerous references to multiple head studies in seventeenth century Antwerp inventories, although due to the commercial rewards for separating and framing them individually, few survive today.
The present work, like many preparatory studies by Van Dyck, was extended in size in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century and ‘worked up’ into a more complex composition. The canvas additions, which were added on the left, right and lower edges, were introduced at the same time the work was laid onto a wooden panel, which dendrochronological analysis confirmed had an earliest plausible usage date from 1696-1706 upwards. That the additions were added at this point was evident by the lack of stitching fastening each canvas section together; they were instead heavily pasted down onto the panel beside one another.
By the early twentieth century this work (in its extended state) was in the collection of the notable French Impressionist painter Henri Michel-Lévy (1844-1914), and was sold at auction after his death where it was acquired by the family of the previous owner. Earlier ownership history is less clear, although a wax seal affixed to the reverse of the panel bears the family arms of The Chevalier Jean-Baptiste Antoine (d.1691), Post-Master General in Antwerp. Antoine died in 1691 and an extensive inventory of his collection was compiled, although the present work in its extended state is not listed. This corresponds with the results from the dendrochronological analysis and examination report discussed above, which suggest it was not extended until after 1696-1706. It is possible, therefore, that the wax seal was added by a later family member who either acquired it in the extended state, or requested its extension.
 C. Brown, Van Dyck Drawings, (London, 1991), p.128
 [Inv. No. 21882]
 For a discussion of the proposed chronologies see A.K. Wheelock, Jr, S.J. Barnes, J.S. Helde et al,Anthony van Dyck, (Washington, 1990-1), pp.114, 116.
 Susan Barnes, Nora De Poorter, Oliver Millar and Horst Vey, Van Dyck – A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings (Yale, New Haven and London, 2004), pp.83-84, no.1.83
 Susan Barnes, Nora De Poorter, Oliver Millar and Horst Vey, Van Dyck – A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings (Yale, New Haven and London, 2004), p.76, no.1.68
 Sotheby’s, New York, 28 January 2010, lot 176 ($7.25m)
 Susan Barnes, Nora De Poorter, Oliver Millar and Horst Vey, Van Dyck – A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings (Yale, New Haven and London, 2004), p.89, no.1.89
 See P. Klein, Dendrochronological Analysis Report, 1 March 2017
 See examination report