Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)
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.
We are grateful to Professor Christopher Brown and the Rev. Dr. Susan Barnes 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This previously unpublished and recently conserved study provides a fascinating insight into the working practice of one of the most important artists to work in England, Sir Anthony Van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.
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 both 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 hand and separate arm at the bottom right, 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 baby on the left’s right arm, in an attempt to make it look as if he 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 left 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.