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 has devoted his career to publishing monographs on 17th century painters such as Poussin, Vermeer and Rembrandt. Also author of Georges de Latour and The art of fakein 1982 he found himself at the center of an art world controversy when he went on 60 Minutes and identified a La Tour painting belonging to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a fake.

Now he is convinced that a painting of the Spanish Infanta Isabella Clara de Eugenia, 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 proclaiming 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 drawing room, and visitors – including other artists and colleagues – joked with it about the “terrible-looking woman” who presided. the room. More recently, Colin Harrison, senior curator of European art at the Ashmolean Museum, found himself in Wright’s house, 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 establishing political stability at a time of religious unrest in Europe between Protestants and Catholics. Van Dyck’s likeness to the Infanta soon became most recognizable as he commissioned an engraving specialist to make prints based on her portrait, which allowed the public 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 graduate art history students, Kendall Francis and Timothy McCall, under close faculty supervision. 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 given over to portraits of the Infanta Isabella, a prominent patroness of van Dyck, where three relevant paintings were on display: the original painting by Rubens which van Dyck consulted to paint his own (the Infanta probably did not no seated live for van Dyck); a three-quarter length portrait by van Dyck and his studio; and a full-length portrait attributed to van Dyck. Their study gave Francis and McCall the opportunity to robustly compare the similarities and differences between paintings from this period created outside of van Dyck’s studio, in his studio, and by the great master himself.

In particular, Francis and McCall focused on the portrayal 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. However, they found the face brushstroke to be coarser and closer to the studio version than van Dyck’s.

The differences between van Dyck’s depictions of the Infanta and Rubens’ initial painting are also notable. While Rubens’ painting depicts the Infanta with a mournful gaze, van Dyck transforms her into an assured and confident sovereign. At this point 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 dates back only to 1937, attribution of the painting can only be made through observation of its stylistic and technical aspects and study of primary source documentation on its workshop practice. At least 20 versions of the painting associated with van Dyck’s workshop are known, although there are probably many more. “Given that these paintings resemble each other so closely, it can be very difficult to determine the extent to which 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 firm conclusions about paintings thought to be by van Dyck but not easily attributable to Dyck’s work. “

Wright is an advocate of expanding 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 Infanta painted by van Dyck, several versions exist in prestigious institutions around the world, including the Galleria Nazionale di Parma, the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna and the Louvre, points out 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 reports elsewhere. Wright has now put the painting on permanent loan to the Cannon Hall Museum in Barnsley.

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