The thick, painterly strokes applied throughout the hair and face of the figure are characteristic of Van Dyck’s earliest known works, and the figure comes to life through the small touches of color to indicate movement and reflected light, such as on the bottom lip and at the young man’s collar. Van Dyck would later develop a refined, elegant portrait style for his noble clients, but his early works demonstrate his knowledge of Rubens’s impasto as well as Caravaggio’s strong chiaroscuro. The Self Portrait in the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna (fig. 1), dated to 1613-14, shows a similar fluidity of the paint and even application, compared to Van Dyck’s later head studies and portraits, which tend to show a more varied texture of paint.
Because the present head study was not intended to serve as a finished portrait (reinforced by the fact that it was painted on paper), it captures a fleeting moment and conveys emotion rather than painstakingly records a person’s features. Its evocative quality aligns the picture with male saints and apostles in Van Dyck’s early religious paintings, although this particular young man does not appear in any known compositions. In contrast, Van Dyck’s more formal Self portrait at the Rubenshuis, previously attributed to Rubens himself, shows a smoother paint surface and higher level of individualized detail (fig. 2). Yet the formal portrait shares with the present head study the same use of shadow to create variety in the flesh tones of the face and the same use of dark chiaroscuro in the nondescript background.
We are grateful to Drs. Susan Barnes and Christopher Brown for, independently, confirming the attribution to Van Dyck based on firsthand inspection of the painting, and to Dr. Hans Vlieghe for endorsing the attribution based on photographs.
A note on provenance: The first documented owner of this painting, Graf Friedrich Moritz von Brabeck (d. 1814), expanded his family's residence, the Schloss Söder, into its current appearance and transformed it into the cultural center of the prince-bishopric of Hildesheim. He was an art lover who amassed a collection of around 400 Old Master paintings, most probably including the present lot, and exhibited his collection in Schloss Söder from 1788 for study purposes. His son-in-law, Graf Andreas Otto Heinrich von Stolberg (1786 - 1863), whose only son had died in 1840, sold the entire collection in 1859 and then sold the estate in 1862. Later owner Ludwig Burchard (1886 – 1960) was a German-born art historian and a leading Rubens scholar of the 20th century. After his death, his collection of scholarly material became the foundation for the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, one of the largest series ever published on a single artist, and which is still expanding today.
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