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Anthony Van Dyck

A Portrait of a Lady

Anthony Van Dyck

Oil on copper, 22⅞  x 18 ins. (58.1 x 45.7 cm)
Circa 1626



Probably the sale of Guillaume-Joseph Feigneaux, Dacosta, Brussels, 18th July 1820, sold for 14 fl.
Probably Foster sale, London 12th-13th March 1834, lot 12, sold £0.15
Probably Alessandro Contini-Bonacossi's Collection, early 1920s
Collection of Achillito Chiesa, Milan
His sale, New York, American Art Association, 27 November 1925, lot 29, sold for $ 1600 (see fig. 3)
Private Collection.


We are grateful to Dr. Rev. Susan Barnes (i) and Dr. Christopher Brown, former Director of the Ashmolean Museum, for independently confirming the attribution. Professor Katlijne Van der Stighelen from Leuven University also confirms the attribution and dates the picture to c. 1626. Dr. Susan Barnes also concurs with a dating to Van Dyck’s Italian period.

Sir Anthony van Dyck is one of the most celebrated and important portraitists in art history. He studied under the great master Peter Paul Rubens and was one of his most accomplished students. As Van Dyck's career flourished, he gained international recognition for his works and socialised with the Royal courts and aristocracy of Europe, and became England's leading court painter. Using his own compositional techniques, van Dyck was soon ranked alongside Titian in terms of style, and the relaxed elegance of his portraits helped shape English portraiture for almost two centuries. 

Van Dyck was born in 1599 to a wealthy cloth merchant family in Antwerp. At an early age he trained as an apprentice with Hendrick van Balen and in 1618 he was admitted to the Antwerp painters' Guild of Saint Luke as a free master.

Together with fellow artist and friend, Jan Brueghel the Younger, Van Dyck opened a tiny, private studio and accepted various commissions from the local people of Antwerp. Van Dyck’s talent was quickly noticed by Rubens who played a major role in his formation as an artist. It is not known when exactly Van Dyck became a pupil of Rubens but the master claimed that he was the very best.

Rubens’s domination in the small city of Antwerp prompted Van Dyck to spend most of his life and career abroad. In 1620, at the young age of twenty-one, he worked briefly in England under the patronage of King James I. It was in London that he first became acquainted with the art of Titian in the collection of the Earl of Arundel, from which he learnt the Venetian colore.  A year later, in 1621, he moved to Italy where he remained for six years studying the work of the great Italian masters. In Italy he was mostly based in Genoa, a city that had long-standing trade relations with Antwerp and thus many Flemish families resided there. It was here that Van Dyck’s career as a brilliant portraitist started and where he painted the present portrait. As Dr. Susan Barnes points out ‘although the support (copper) and the Flemish-seeming facial features of the sitter point towards Antwerp, the pose, the palette and the dress suggest Italy.”

Genoa was a prosperous merchant city that provided many opportunities for the artist to paint the portraits of the wealthy Genoese aristocracy. Many of Van Dyck’s seminal contributions to the history of portraiture took place in Genoa, a city he would constantly return to during his time in Italy, and where he was known and loved within society.  The present picture probably dates from the first half of his Italian period in the early 1620s and highlights his great importance in setting new standards and shaping the development of portrait painting in the 17th century. The majority of Van Dyck’s oeuvre comprises of portraits, and he is considered the master of this genre, known for depicting his sitters with grandeur and dignity. Often they were shown against a dark background to emphasize this sense of austerity, like in the present portrait. Van Dyck was also adept in his characterisation of his sitters and portrayed hand gestures even in upper-body portraits. The sitter’s right hand in this portrait tentatively clasps her necklace and adds a sense of vulnerability and human feeling to her character. The rich brushstrokes portray the sitter with such physiognomic truth and vivacity that the viewer remains captivated by her gaze.

While he was in Italy, Van Dyck travelled extensively to other cities and spent some time also living in Palermo, in Siciily.  He developed his own distinctive and wonderful portrait style, drawing upon the influences in particular of the Venetians, Titian and Veronese, and incorporating the lessons learnt from his great master Rubens.

During the years 1628-1632 Van Dyck settled back in Antwerp. Here he was commissioned many religious works, including several altarpieces. His princely portrait commissions were also numerous. During this time his sitters included Marie de’ Medici, Prince Frederick Henry of Orange and the young Prince Rupert. 

The climatic phase of the artist’s career began when he was summoned by King Charles I and his Queen Henrietta Maria in 1632 and appointed as ‘Principal Painter in Ordinary’.  He was knighted the following year.

The King used Van Dyck’s portraits to project an image of majesty.  In the same way, Van Dyck’s other courtly patrons commissioned him to create portraits that would display their power, wealth and social standing and, in the case of women, also their beauty and virtue.  Both men and women are richly attired in the latest fashion. Their confident pose, as they steadily meet the viewer’s gaze, implies their elevated place in the social order. The imposing double portrait of the Lord John Stuart and his brother Lord Bernard Stuart is a grand example.  The simple background sets off the aquiline features, confident poses and rich clothing. Both young men fell on the Royalist side in the British Civil War (ii).

Working in a period of intense political ferment during the run-up to the Civil War, Van Dyck portrayed many of the leading characters of the period until his premature death at the age of 42. His iconic portraits of King Charles I have shaped our view of the Stuart monarchy, while the compositions he used influenced many future generations of British painters.

i Dr. Susan J. Barnes holds a PhD and is an independent art historian specialised in the work of
Van Dyck. She is the co-author of A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings: Van Dyck, published in 2004.
ii Van Dyck, Lord John Stuart and his brother Lord Bernard Stuart, 1638, The National Gallery, London.

Anthony Van Dyck

Antwerp 1599 - 1641 London

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