This painting demonstrates how fully van Dyck had absorbed the lessons of his master Rubens, as well as how soon after he had begun an independent practice that he developed his own signature style. Though there has long been debate as to the identity of the man, as well as the family depicted in the Ottawa painting, his identity remains a mystery.1 He was most likely a studio model, and the sketch would have stayed with van Dyck in his studio as a reference point from which later figures could have been based. In fact, a number of the figures in Suffer Little Children to Come unto Me are found in later compositions by van Dyck, such as the Christ who appears in Chris and the Penitent Sinners (Bayerische Staatsgemäldegalerie, Munich), and the Apostle at left in the yellow cloak, who appears in numerous later works.2 The practice of making study heads from a live model was first introduced in the Southern Netherlands by Frans Floris and later eagerly embraced by Rubens as well as Van Dyck. The heads became part of their studio repertory, kept on hand to be used in various multi-figured compositions throughout the artists' careers. Rubens himself so valued Van Dyck's studies that he kept them long after his prize pupil had left his workshop, and many appear in the inventory of his studio at his death.
Suffer Little Children to Come unto Me was undoubtedly one of van Dyck's first major independent compositions, and as such, he prepared for its final execution with a number of preparatory sketches for the various figures, some of which are extant. The one which comes closest to the present work in character is today in a private collection (Barnes 2004, cat. no. I. 15). Both of these pictures employ quickly applied short white brush strokes along the hair line as finishing touches to the otherwise more polished rendering of the face. In addition, though, van Dyck incorporated other studies into the final work, including two used for the apostles to the left of Christ (Barnes 2004, cat. nos. I.90, which was sold New York, Sotheby's, 28 January 2010, lot 176; and I.91).
Prior to a cleaning undertaken on the occasion of its exhibition alongside the Ottawa painting at the National Gallery of Canada, clumsy over paint masked the carefully applied highlights and overall highly confident execution which is so readily visible now. Though undoubtedly preparatory, this picture functions as a fully worked up portrait. Van Dyck has gone so far as to include a stone background for contrast, as well as carefully finished clothing with a sharply linear collar. Given the care with which the sketch is finished, it is unsurprising that the likeness of the subject is quite faithfully transferred to the final painting.
We are grateful to Susan Barnes for confirming the attribution, based on firsthand inspection.
1. See Literature, Barnes 2004, p. 31.
2. Ibid, cat. nos. I.17, I.20, 1.21.
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