This grisaille, which has hitherto been overlooked by scholars, is a significant addition to Van Dyck's oeuvre. It corresponds closely with his altarpiece painted in 1629 or shortly before as a gift from the artist to the Dominican Convent of Saint Catherine in Antwerp, following the last wishes of his father, who had died in 1622. An inscription on the rock at the foot of the Cross records Van Dyck's generosity: `That the earth should not weigh too heavily on the remains of his father, Anthony Van Dyck placed this stone before the cross and donated it to this place'. The altarpiece is now in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp (see fig. 1).1 There are only minor differences between the altarpiece and the grisaille: in the clouds and in the omission of the inscription. The composition was engraved at the request of the nuns by Schelte à Bolswert, in 1651. The engraver's copy was drawn by Erasmus Quellinus, and the engraving, in reverse, was published in 1653 (see fig. 2).2
The Sparre grisaille sketch does not have the loose handling of Van Dyck's preparatory oil sketches, and is much more likely to be his own meticulous copy or ricordo, almost certainly made to record the composition for an engraving. In view of the personal nature of the circumstances of creation of the altarpiece it is hardly surprising that Van Dyck would wish to make such a record of it, although it is perhaps rather more surprising that he did not engrave it himself, or see that it was engraved rather sooner than it was. He was however, particularly busy at this time, and his departure for England a few years later would certainly have curtailed any such plans.
At around this time, circa 1627-9, Van Dyck made several small precise monochrome sketches after his own work, presumably also for the engraver or his draftsman to work from. The Sparre grisaille may be compared with Van Dyck's pale violet grisaille of the Crucifixion with Saint Francis in the Courtauld Institute, London, done by after his altarpiece for the Kapucijnkerk in Dendermonde, and used by Pieter de Bailliu as a model for his engraving (see fig. 3).3 As Vey has remarked, Van Dyck most probably made this grisaille while the altarpiece was still in his studio, but the engraving did not appear for another 13 or 14 years. Given that the Dendermonde altarpiece dates from almost exactly the same date as the altarpiece for the Convent of Saint Catherine, a similar approach to recording the composition in a grisaille done without a specific arrangement to have it engraved is highly plausible. The brushwork in the Courtauld sketch is remarkably similar to the Sparre picture, for example in the short-hand handling of heads, the assured, precise drawing of the drapery and of Christ's torso, the dry drawing of the hands and the swirling brushwork in the sky.
Another comparable picture is Van Dyck's precise brunaille sketch in Yale University Art Gallery after the altarpiece of the Ecstasy of Saint Augustine that he painted for the Sint-Augustinuskerk in Antwerp in circa 1628.4 This sketch served as the basis for Pieter de Jode's engraving; the only difference in practice here is that De Jode's print was made relatively soon after the altarpiece was finished, at the latest by August 1634.
Ger Luijten takes a different view of all the intermediate sketches. He considers both the Courtauld and Yale sketches, though of high quality, to be the work of another anonymous hand.5
As Vey relates, a sketch for the altarpiece was recorded by Descamps writing in 1769 as kept in the Convent: `L'esquisse de ce Tableau, aussi précieuse, se conserve dans l'intérieur de cette Maison'. Sir Joshua Reynolds wanted to see the sketch `said to be within the convent', in 1781, but was unable to do so.6 In any event the sketch must have left the Convent by 1783 at the latest, when it was dissolved, and the contents, including the altarpiece, sold in Brussels in 1785. According to Jacobus de Wit, the nuns had sold the sketch to a Swedish nobleman for 50 Ducats.7 De Wit's original manuscript dated from 1748; however, the 1910 edition is based on the only surviving manuscript: a copy made by François Johannes Mols in 1774, with his own amendments, now kept in the Royal Library, Brussels (the relevant text is 30v). If the information about the sale of the sketch to a Swedish nobleman originates with Mols rather than De Wit, it is likely that Sparre was the Swedish nobleman who bought it, most likely in ther Autumn 1769. Sparre's diaries record his fascination with the altarpieces that he saw in Flanders, especially during his visit to Antwerp in 1769, so it is hardly surprising that he acquired this one.
We are most grateful to Dr. Horst Vey for confirming the attribution to Van Dyck on the basis of first-hand inspection.
1. See H. Vey, in S.J. Barnes, N. de Poorter, O. Millar, H. Vey, Van Dyck. A complete catalogue of the paintings, New Haven & London 2004, p. 267, no. III.28, reproduced in colour.
2. Hollstein no. 21.
3. For both altarpiece and grisaille, see Vey, op. cit., pp. 265-7, nos. III. 26 & III.27, both reproduced. the Dendermonde altarpiece now hangs in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, Dendermonde, having made a brief journey to Paris as Napoleonic War Loot.
4. See Vey, op. cit., pp. 277-8, no. III.41 (the altarpiece, now in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp) & no. III.42 (the sketch, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven).
5. See G. Luijten, in C. Depauw & G. Luijten, Anthony van Dyck as a printmaker, exhibition catalogue, Antwerp-Amsterdam, 1999, pp. 228-9, 271.
6. See Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Journey to Flanders and Holland, ed. H. Mount, Cambridge 1996, p. 45.
7. J. de Wit, De kerken van Antwerpen ... beschreven door Jacobus de Wit, ed. J. de Bosschere, Antwerp & he Hague 1910, p. 115: In het Clooster is eertyds geweest de schetse van het autaar stuck van hunne kercke. Maer sedert eenige jaeren hebben de Religieusen het selve verkooght voor 50. Ducaten aen een sweedts edelman (`In the convent there used to be the sketch of the altar piece of their church. But for some years the Religious ones have sold it themselves for 50 Ducats to a Swedish nobleman').
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale