Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Study for 'Suffer the Little Children', 1618-20/1 

Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

Study for 'Suffer the Little Children', 1618-20/1, Sir Anthony Van Dyck
Oil on paper laid on panel
17th Century
12 ½ x 9 ¼ in. (31.8 x 23.5 cm.)
Thomas Loridon de Guellinck Sale: Ghent, Goessin, 9 March 1821, lot 118; bt. Deschamps.
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This sketch is a study for the boy's head at the lower right of Van Dyck's early painting Suffer little Children to come unto Me, of about 1620-1, now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa1. Another oil sketch for the figure of the boy with his hands clasped in prayer at the centre of the composition is in a private collection, New York. The Ottawa painting was formerly in the so-called Grand Cabinet at Blenheim Palace, where the boy's head related to our study was famously sketched by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The subject of this painting, in which Christ exhorts children to receive his message, was already popular in Northern Europe; yet van Dyck, perhaps responding to the growing assertiveness of his bourgeois patrons, has developed the idiom further by turning it into a large-scale family portrait. In the painting Van Dyck plays on the stark contrast between the idealized group of apostles around Christ on the left of the picture, and the highly naturalistic rendering of the family on the right. The occasion for the commission of this painting was most likely the first communion of the boy shown in the center, receiving Christ’s blessing. The identity of the sitters is uncertain; in the past, various scholars have considered this painting to be a portrait of Rubens, his wife Isabella Brandt and their three known children, Clara Serena, Albert, and Nicholas. More recently this assumption has been doubted since it does not account for the presence of the fourth child. Furthermore, Rubens’s oldest child, Clara Serena, was three years Albert¹s senior, yet the boy in the center is clearly the oldest of the children.

As is the case with the former Hamilton oil sketch, there are slight differences between the figure in this study and the painting. While the sketch shows the boy wearing a simple shirt, in the painting an exquisite robe is draped around his bare upper body whose sole other embellishment is a coral necklace. The practise of head studies in oil on paper was one that Van Dyck employed mostly as a young man. In addition to emulating as closely as possible the appearance of the sitter in the final painting, the purpose of these works seems to have been to carefully study facial expressions as well as the distribution of the light. The brilliant effects of light on the boy's skin and hair are particularly striking in this work and were rendered with hardly any modification in the Ottawa picture.

Julius Held discusses two comparable early head studies by Van Dyck in the Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna, and a private collection, New York, while Erik Larson lists several other studies in this technique. About half of these are in oil on paper, while the remainder is painted directly onto panel.
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