A Stranger in Warsaw

Image: Portrait of a man by an Imitator of Van Dyck, oil on canvas, 76 x 65cm. National Museum, Warsaw. (164201)

The National Museum in Poland has recently done a fantastic job of uploading their collection online. These exhaustive databases are the perfect way to explore the stores of a gallery or museum from literally hundreds or thousands of miles away. Stores and reserve collections are an important tool for art historians to get to grips with their chosen artist or field. It is of course important to familiarise ourselves with the masterpieces of an artist’s oeuvre, and to get to know them like the back of your hand. However, I would argue it is equally as important to recognise and get to know those paintings and artworks that fall short and into the border territory. When searching through the stores and online databases, one will come across hundreds of works by copyists, imitators and followers that have rightly (or sometimes wrongly) fallen by the wayside. Being able to recognise strengths and weaknesses in technique, composition and handling, is all a part of developing connoisseurship.

A particular portrait recently caught my eye, which was interesting for all sorts of reasons. As often is the case, I was immediately drawn to the sitter’s glistening armour. Within the canvas is a rather wonderful depiction of a type associated with the London and Greenwich workshops developed for pikemen during the first decades of the seventeenth century (see an example below). The unmistakable embossed chevrons and decorative rivets afford these otherwise plain steel plates a simple yet effective decoration. Suitable for an officer, this armour would have certainly allowed whoever wore it to rise above the crowd.

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Pikeman’s corselet, English, about 1620-30. HM Queen Elizabeth II, Windsor Castle.

The museum have already identified the indebtedness this portrait shows to Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). It is currently described as the work of an imitator and dated to the late seventeenth to early eighteenth century.

Swept up with the political struggles of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the provenance is equally murky. It was first part of the Golitsyn Museum in Moscow, before being transferred to the Hermitage in St Petersburg in the nineteenth century. In 1895 it was moved to the Łazienki Palace in Warsaw, to replace Rembrandt’s Maerten Soolmans which had been taken to St Petersburg. The painting was once again taken to Moscow in 1915, and returned to Warsaw under the regulations of the Treaty of Riga (1921). Absorbed with other looted artworks by Nazi Germany in 1939, the portrait of the young man was finally returned to Poland in 1946. (1)

However. Having seen hundreds of works which undoubtedly fall short of the standards one might expect, this portrait exudes quality. The subtle glazes in the sitter’s face describe the bones, flesh and blood of the youth with a remarkable living likeness. Equally, the hair is full of life and spontaneous in treatment. In the drapery the artist captures the heavy folds with a certain freshness and freedom, although perhaps slightly too heavy for Van Dyck’s own brush. The pointing hand, whose knuckles and fingers are picked out in soft pink and purple tones on the extremities, create the effect of exuberant life, as they lead our eyes off into the darkness. All of these combine to create a striking portrait.

164201 - Copy
Detail of head

Why might this painting have been doubted, and cast aside as the work of an imitator? More importantly, why does it matter?

Van Dyck’s oeuvre and artistic development points towards a possible answer. From the late 1630s onwards, the pressures and monotony of being painter to Charles I and the English aristocracy was already taking its toll. We know that the artist’s final years were plagued by ill health sustained by regular trips abroad and to the spa town of Bath. His handling during this period became increasingly smooth and solid, despite still periodically showing spectacular bursts of spontaneity and masterful modelling and colour. His palette too seems to have become far more creamy, especially evident in the flesh tones. The portraits of Thomas Wharton (Hermitage, St Petersburg) and George Baron Goring (sold Sotheby’s 2016) remind us how smooth and faultless his late portraits could be. The Warsaw portrait seems to fit these stylistic traits perfectly.

The late Sir Oliver Millar, who presided over the 2004 catalogue raisonne, had always expressed a deep concern with our lack of knowledge of Van Dyck’s final years. (2) We know very little about the role the painter and his studio played in churning out the vast numbers of portraits for his demanding clients. Were some assistants able to carry on working whilst the master was away? How might have this collaboration worked? Were some assistants more gifted than others? When confronted with the enormous lack of documentary evidence, it is clear to see why attribution should be approached with some caution. In any case, these paintings should in themselves become important documents and artefacts on which future research can be based.

Amongst the exquisite Van Dycks which hang in the Ballroom of Windsor Castle is a painting I am always drawn to more than any of the others (see below). It depicts Princess Mary, and is considered to be one of last two portraits commissioned from the painter in the summer of 1641. Compared with his other works within the majestic setting, one has the feeling that this one is somehow different. The sombre colouring, the sensitive attention of the face and hair, it is rather ghostly compared with the other bright and powerful paintings which occupy the same space. It might be rather over-romantic of me to imagine the nervous highlights in the Princess’s dress as signs of the ‘goutte’ Van Dyck was suffering with in his hands during this late period. (3)

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Princess Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, called ‘Studio of Van Dyck’, oil on canvas, 155.6 x 109.9cm. HM Queen Elizabeth II, Windsor Castle.

The Royal Collection currently call the painting ‘Studio of Van Dyck’, despite the picture receiving a full attribution in Millar’s 2004 catalogue raisonne.

It seems that the Warsaw painting may have never been seen by Millar. Nor does it appear in Erik Larsen’s flawed catalogue published in the late 1980s.

Might this picture be good enough to be a late Van Dyck? Or, is this truly the work of an imitator? We know that painters like John Hayls (1600-1679) and Adriaen Hanneman (1603-1671) could come remarkably close to Van Dyck’s glassy-smooth late style. Both continued to draw inspiration from the painter’s compositions and painterly flair, and are worth future study.  Having said this, I’m not sure I have ever seen them paint in such a convincing and confident manner.

There is little doubt that the picture is of considerable interest and quality, which might give up its secret one day.

 

1) I am grateful to Michał Przygoda and Hanna Benesz for their assistance with the provenance of this picture.

2) O. Millar, “The years in London: problems and reassessments” in H. Vliege (ed.), Van Dyck 1599-1999, conjectures and refutations, 1999, pp.129-137.

3) O. Millar (ed.), Van Dyck: a complete catalogue of the paintings, New Haven and London 2004, p. 425.

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