Is this art historian’s £ 65 copy of a Van Dyck painting really an original?

Portrait of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia (courtesy Christopher Wright)

Christopher Wright devoted his career to the publication of monographs on 17th century painters such as Poussin, Vermeer and Rembrandt. An author also of Georges de La Tour and Counterfeit Art, in 1982, he found himself at the center of a controversy in the art world when he broadcast 60 Minutes and identified a painting by The Tower belonging to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a fake.

Now he’s convinced that a painting of Eugenia’s Spanish Infanta Isabella Clara, which he bought for £ 65 (~ $ 88) in 1970, is an Anthony van Dyck original. Media reports over the weekend trumpeted Wright’s discovery, with the Guardian claiming that “the painting on his wall is the work of a Flemish master”.

At 76, Wright is retired and lives in Crete. For more than 50 years, the painting of the Infanta hung in Wright’s living room, and visitors – including other artists and colleagues – joked with him about the “terrible-looking woman” who presided over the room. . More recently, Colin Harrison, senior curator of European art at the Ashmolean Museum, ended up in Wright’s home, where the portrait of the Infanta caught his eye. Harrison insisted the painting looked like a van Dyck. Wright therefore took the painting to the Courtauld Institute of Art, where he both studied for a master’s degree and worked at the Witt Library, for further research and analysis.

In the painting, the Infanta Isabella is dressed in a nun’s habit, her posture turned to the left and her hands crossed in front of her. Daughter of King Philip II of Spain, she was married to her cousin Albert VII. Their marriage played an important role in forming political stability at a time of religious turmoil in Europe between Protestants and Catholics. Van Dyck’s resemblance to the Infanta quickly became most recognizable when he commissioned an engraver specialist to make prints based on his portrait, which provided the public with a way to connect with the Infanta, who, as a Franciscan ruler, made rare public appearances.

For three years, Wright’s painting was carefully studied by two art history graduate students, Kendall Francis and Timothy McCall, under the close supervision of the faculty. As part of their research, they traveled to Turin, where the Galleria Sabauda, ​​a division of the Musei Reali, hosted an exhibition titled Van Dyck, court painter. An entire room was dedicated to portraits of the Infanta Isabella, an important patron of van Dyck, where three relevant paintings were on display: the original Rubens painting which van Dyck consulted to paint his own (the Infanta probably did no direct seated for van Dyck); a three-quarter-length portrait by van Dyck and his studio; and a full-length portrait attributed to van Dyck. The study of these gave Francis and McCall the opportunity to compare forcefully the similarities and differences between paintings of this period created outside van Dyck’s studio, in his studio and by the great master him -same.

In particular, Francis and McCall focused on the depiction of the Infanta’s hands and face. The hands, which they described as “highly finished,” were the feature of the painting that first jumped out at Harrison’s eyes. However, they found the brush on the face to be coarser and closer to the workshop version than van Dyck’s.

The differences between van Dyck’s depictions of the Infanta and Rubens’ initial painting are also noteworthy. While Rubens’ painting depicts the Infanta with a sad gaze, van Dyck transforms her into a self-confident and confident ruler. At this stage in his career, van Dyck, a pupil of Rubens, sought to distinguish his style from that of his master.

Since the provenance of Wright’s painting does not go back until 1937, attribution of the painting can only be done by observing its stylistic and technical aspects and studying the primary source documentation on its practice in the workshop. At least 20 versions of the painting associated with van Dyck’s studio are known, although there are probably many more. “Since these paintings look so closely alike, it can be very difficult to determine to what extent van Dyck’s studio assistants were involved in their creation,” Francis and McCall wrote. “The lack of documentation of studio practice during this period makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about paintings believed to be by van Dyck but which are not easily attributable to Dyck’s work. “

Wright is an advocate of extending the work of accepted attributions to van Dyck. While the definitive catalog published in 2004 by Yale University Press recognizes only one original portrait of the Infanta painted by van Dyck, several versions exist in prestigious institutions around the world, including the Galleria Nazionale di Parma, the Kunsthistorisches Vienna Museum and the Louvre, underlines Wright. . Wright values ​​his painting at £ 40,000 (~ $ 54,500). But there is no final verdict on whether van Dyck painted Wright’s portrait – contrary to popular belief. Wright has now loaned the painting to the Cannon Hall Museum in Barnsley.

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