The picture has traditionally been understood as a study depicting The Penitent Magdalene. The sitter, who gazes upwards with her head resting in her hand as her hair falls over her shoulders, adheres to the traditional iconographic traditions of the Magdalene imagery, for example as seen in a large full-length, and similarly early Penitent Magdalene, in the Rijksmuseum (inv. no. 103). That female figure displays an almost identical gaze and upward head tilt to the present subject.1 Despite the clear connections with traditional Magdalene depictions, however, the sketch has never been linked with a specific, larger finished painting of that subject. This is not entirely surprising given the versatile nature of the studies produced in the Rubens studio. The sitter may have been a studio model, whose likeness would have been recorded in various figure studies, and later incorporated into other multi-figure compositions. Such a practice would have been well known to van Dyck given its widespread use in Rubens' studio. The notion of creating, keeping, and re-using studio studies made from life was first developed by Frans Floris in the Southern Netherlands, and later embraced by Van Dyck’s Flemish contemporaries, in particular Rubens and Jacob Jordaens. These were often recycled in a sense, or used on numerous occasions, and seem to have functioned in certain cases as figure types which could be used repeatedly.
Such is the case with the present sketch, whose subject in one sense works as a Magdalane "type", but also appears in quite startlingly different subjects. Van Dyck rather seamlessly incorporates this specific figure into an entirely different, and rather diametrically opposed subject, that of the Drunken Silenus (Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen). By re-imagining the figure in this large scale mythological scene (which should be dated to after the present sketch), van Dyck immediately imbues the sitter with an entirely new set of character traits. What in one sense is a pensive, quiet depiction of a religious figure, serves in another sense as a sensual and outwardly seductive temptress. Such malleability in its functionality lend credence to the argument that the sketch may never have been originally intended as a Magdalene at all, but more generally an emotional and gripping depiction of a woman midway through an engaging thought process, religious or seductive as it may have been.
The painting may be identical with a picture listed in the inventory of Jan-Baptista Anthonie, who is recorded as owning two “Magdalene tronies”, both laid on panel, “Een geschetste Magdalenatronie geplacht op’t pinneel van Van Dijck”.2
Given this sketch’s immediacy and confident handling it is unsurprising that a number of contemporary and later copies are extant. The best of these was formerly in the Stroefer collection (oil on panel, sold, Munich 28 October 1937, lot 35).
We are grateful to John Somerville, Keeper of the Cook Collection Archive, for his help in cataloguing this lot.
1. José Juan Pérez Preciado suggests that this picture was not intended to be a study for the Rijksmuseum Magdalene, but rather that this study was intended to serve as a model by which to capture a specific pose or set of gestures (see Literature, A. Vergara and F. Lammertse (eds.) 2012, p. 116)
2. Translation: “A sketched Magdalene tronie pasted onto panel by Van Dyck." See Barnes et. al. 2004, under cat. no. I.41.
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