Numerous preparatory sketches from van Dyck’s early period in Antwerp survive today, though later in the artist's career the practice appeared to tail off. He commonly created swift yet detailed studies in oil on paper, many of which were later mounted onto panel. The effect of oil on this medium is very different from its sleek appearance on panel and the result provides surprising insight into the artist’s technique and application of paint.3 It is clear that the characterization of the sitter was of the utmost importance in this case and as such the paint is more concentrated and heavily worked up in the face and hands. In these key areas the paint is densely applied in a thick impasto and the texture is almost dragged and grainy. Less important areas, such as his clothing, are indicated in thin, broad strokes and the overall effect is swift and spontaneous. As José Juan Pérez Preciado writes:
“instead of trying to capture the details of the boy’s features, the artist seems to have concentrated his efforts more on reflecting the psychological qualities and the attitude that the child was to convey in the final painting.”4
The sitter’s eyes are cast downward in humility, but the artist also conveys a certain “nervous tension” in the boy’s demeanor, as Oliver Millar notes.5 The artist skillfully expresses the subtle emotion of the child; his hands are gingerly pressed together and there is a slight tautness at the corners of the mouth.
The vivacity and naturalness of the sitters in the right hand section of in the finished Ottawa composition suggest these figures are portraits of a real family, incorporated into the biblical scene.6 Klara Garas, Ellis Waterhouse and Alain McNairn considered it a strong possibility that the family portrayed was that of Peter Paul Rubens and his first wife, Isabella Brant.7 By that reasoning, the boy in this sketch would be Rubens' eldest son, Albert, who was born in 1614. Nora de Poorter, amongst others, have since rejected the hypothesis, however, finding the resemblance to Rubens and Isabella Brant less convincing and questioning the inclusion of a fourth child in addition to their own three offspring.8 The identity of the boy and his family thus remain a mystery.
A workshop version of this sketch, showing the boy without hands, is now in the Museé du Louvre, Paris (inv. no. 1961-83). That study was also offered in the 1926 Warneck sale (see Provenance) and its inclusion alongside the present sketch led to the assumption that the Louvre picture was also an autograph work. The quality, however, is inferior to that of the present painting and as such the Louvre picture is now considered to be a workshop variant.9
1. New York, Sotheby's, 30 January 2014, lot 24; New York, Sotheby's, 28 January 2010, lot 176.
2. J.J. Pérez Preciado, under Literature, p. 194, note 5.
3. New Orleans 1997, under Literature, p. 42.
4. J.J. Pérez Preciado, op. cit.
5. New Orleans 1997, op. cit.
6. N. de Poorter, under Literature, p. 31, under cat. no. I.14.
7. A. McNairn, K. Garas, E. Waterhouse in, The Young van Dyck, exhibition catalogue, A. McNairn ed., Ottaway 1980, cat. no. 71.
8. N. de Poorter, op. cit.
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