Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Self-Portrait, c.1628/9 

Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

Self-Portrait, c.1628/9, Sir Anthony Van Dyck
Oil and Canvas
17th Century
31.5 x 24 in (80 x 61 cm)
Possibly Paulus Pontius, his posthumous inventory of 1659, ‘Twee Contrefeytsels: het effigies van de schilder Van Dyck’; Probably Jan-Baptiste Anthoine, his posthumous inventory of 1691, ‘Een Contrefeijtsel van Van Dijck met eenen mantel in de handt’; Probably then in the sale of Count Thomas de Fraula, Brussels, 21st July 1738, lot 31, ‘Van Dyck – Een Portrait van eenen Man met Rabat, ende goude keten, hoogh 2 v. 7 duym en half, breet 2 v. 1 duym en half.’ Edward Gray, Harringay House, by 1838; Robert Stayner Holford, Westonbirt; Sir George Lindsay Holford, Westonbirt; Christie’s, London, 17th May, 1928, lot 64; Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, London; Captain W.H.Pollen MC; Christie’s, London, 17th May 1957, lot 51; David M Koetser, Zurich; German Private Collection.
Sir George Lindsay Holford, ‘The Holford Collection’ (Oxford, 1924), No.85, p.78, Illus. pl. LXXV (as by Van Dyck); Gustav Glück, ‘Anton van Dyck’ (Berlin 1931), p.517, illus. frontispiece, p.viii (as by Van Dyck); W.R. Valentiner, ‘Van Dyck’s Character’, in Art Quarterly, Spring 1950, No.2. pp.86-105; Marie Mauquoy-Hendricx, ‘L’Iconographie d’Antoine van Dyck’ (Brussels, 1956), Nos. 4 & 79 (as by Van Dyck); Oliver Millar, ‘Van Dyck at Agnews’, in The Burlington Magazine, Vol.110, No.789, (December 1968), p.712 (as ‘probably’ by Van Dyck); Erik Larsen, ‘The Paintings of Anthony van Dyck’ (Freren, 1988), No. 1017 (as by Van Dyck); Carl Depauw & Ger Luijten, ‘Anthony van Dyck as a Printmaker’ (Antwerpen & Amsterdam, 1999), p.92, illus. p.98 (as by Van Dyck). Susan Barnes, Oliver Millar, Nora de Poorter & Horst Vey, ‘Van Dyck. A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings’ (New Haven and London, 2004) p.628, No.IV.A1 (as ‘possibly a very early copy’). Engraved: Etched by the artist, c.1630 Engraved by Paulus Pontius in a double portrait with Rubens, 1640s.
London, Agnews, 1968, No.41
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For an artist of his international standing and popularity, Van Dyck appears to have painted himself relatively infrequently. The 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné by Susan Barnes, Nora de Poorter, Horst Vey and Oliver Millar lists seven surviving self-portraits, of which three derive from the same sitting. A self-portrait painted for Charles I, described as an oval in which the artist includes his left hand, was listed as lost in the 2004 catalogue. In all, therefore, Van Dyck is today believed to have taken his own likeness only six times in oil, at most. More curious still is the apparent distribution of Van Dyck’s self-portraits throughout his career. According to the most recent literature, Van Dyck painted two self-portrait types during his first period in Antwerp before leaving for Italy in 1621, but none in Italy, and none either on his return to Antwerp in 1627. Only after his arrival in England in 1632 did he revert to painting himself, when we find three surviving self-portraits from this final phase in his career: the c.1633 Self-Portrait with Endymion Porter; the c.1634 Self-Portrait with a Sunflower; and the c.1640 head and shoulders oval once in the possession of Sir Peter Lely.

The comparative lack of self-portraits from early on in Van Dyck’s career may seem unusual for an artist of his abilities and fame. Equally unusual is the fact that Van Dyck’s self-portraits, as a group, have never been the subject of any detailed study. The picture under discussion here has rarely been exhibited or seen by scholars, and is probably the least studied of Van Dyck’s self-portraits. It was first certainly recorded in England in the noted collection of the Holford family in the mid-19th Century, where it was in the company of pictures such as Van Dyck’s Portrait of Abbé Scaglia [National Gallery, London]. It represents one of the most significant additions to Van Dyck’s oeuvre in recent years, and is the artist’s only surviving self-portrait from what is generally called his ‘second Antwerp period’ (1627-32).

Until the latter half of the twentieth century, the present self-portrait [hereafter, for ease of reference, called the ‘Holford self-portrait’] was regarded as arguably the pre-eminent likeness of Van Dyck, with the type appearing as the frontispiece not only for his celebrated Iconography series of etchings and engravings, but also for numerous books on Van Dyck, such Gustav Gluck’s 1931 catalogue raisonné. It was engraved by Paulus Pontius in the 1640s alongside a portrait of Rubens. Indeed, the portrait was continually published as a work by Van Dyck until as late as 1999 (during the series of exhibitions in Antwerp to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Van Dyck’s birth). However, in 2004 the picture’s attribution was doubted by Sir Oliver Millar, the academic responsible for those works painted by Van Dyck in England in the Van Dyck catalogue raisonné.

Millar’s grounds for questioning the Holford self-portrait appear to have centred on two factors; first, its perceived condition, and second its date. In 2004 Millar wrote that the picture ‘surface has been so abraded that it is difficult to assess the original quality of the portrait which is possibly a very early copy. The texture throughout seems rather soft; the draperies appear rather coarsely modelled and the hand is weakly drawn; and even in the chain the touch is lifeless’. Millar listed the portrait as ‘whereabouts unknown’, and one must therefore assume that he had not recently seen the picture in person. If so, then his 2004 verdict overturned his own earlier opinion on the work, for when he had seen the picture (during its last public exhibition, at Agnews in London in 1968) he had written that it was ‘probably a very much rubbed original’. Millar also believed that the portrait composition dated from Van Dyck’s English period (that is, post 1632). Most significantly, Millar suggested that the gold chain seen in the portrait was that given to Van Dyck by Charles I. He therefore dated the picture to no earlier than April 1633 (the date Charles gave the chain to Van Dyck), and thus assumed it was an English period work. The chain given to Van Dyck by Charles is the much thinner example shown in the c.1634 Self-Portrait with a Sunflower.

The Holford self-portrait, however, is a much earlier work from Van Dyck’s second period in Antwerp, and can be dated to about 1629. It almost certainly records what was probably then the high-point of Van Dyck’s career, for in December 1628 he was given a gold chain worth 750 guilders by the Archduchess Isabella (Philip II’s regent in the Spanish Netherlands), for painting her portrait. In 1630 he was appointed her court painter with an additional salary of 250 guilders. He was thereafter known officially as ‘Painter to Her Highness’, the first time he had formally been able to style himself as a royal painter. The Holford self-portrait can be seen as a celebration of either of these important moments, and shows the artist removing his cloak to reveal his prestigious new decoration.

Recent conservation has revealed that the Holford self-portrait is not in the deleterious condition that Millar feared. The picture, which (like all Van Dyck’s self-portraits) is very freely and spontaneously painted, especially when compared to his regular portrait commissions, had at some time early on in its history suffered a degree of over-restoration in the black drapery. The darker pigments (invariably the first to suffer during over-cleaning, because of the softer compounds used) had subsequently been very poorly retouched in several separate campaigns of restoration, leading to much of the black drapery being repeatedly repainted. A combination of degradation, over-paint and old varnish thus rendered large areas of the painting unreadable to the eye. The back of Van Dyck’s cloak, for example, had lost much of its form and shape, such that it was impossible to make out the line and hang of the collar. His shoulder merged awkwardly into his back, and his hand had lost focus thanks to repeated re-touching. Fortunately, the face and hair had escaped previous campaigns of restoration.

The picture is now free of all the later over-paint, and can once more be read as intended by the artist. The hand, though only loosely painted, holds the black fabric with such levity and delicacy that it is clear Van Dyck is taking off his cloak - to reveal the chain - and not pulling it on. In contrast to the hand and drapery, the face and hair are highly modelled, with details such as the light on the moustache, the glistening skin of the nose, the slight indentation in the centre of forehead, and even the protruding lower lip which we know Van Dyck had (from both the early Vienna self-portrait and the portrait of him as a young man by Rubens [Rubenshuis. Antwerp]), all delicately rendered.

It is perhaps worth noting that Van Dyck’s self-portraits, with possibly the exception of the double portrait with Endymion Porter, are often painted in a somewhat different manner to his usual portrait commissions. It seems he was not particularly interested in presenting himself in the minutely rendered costumes demanded by his sitters, focusing instead on the visual drama of the overall composition. Van Dyck’s earliest self-portrait, the small and exquisite panel in the Gemaldegalerie in Vienna, has only a loosely drawn shoulder to set against the turned head, and a collar rendered with a single, dramatic white line. The early self-portrait type known in three versions (the best of which is probably that in the Hermitage) has similarly cursory drapery, and even the hands are so quickly painted as to appear, especially in the example now at the Metropolitan museum, incongruous. The Self-Portrait with a Sunflower is most casually painted in the jacket, to such an extent that the red cloak looks entirely unlike Van Dyck’s usual drapery. Interestingly, the now lost self-portrait painted for Charles I later struck observers as so pedestrian when it was appraised in 1712 that it was described as, ‘quite ordinary’, and lowly valued. The final c.1640 self-portrait (also once very lowly valued, when in Van Dyck’s estate) is only loosely painted in the hair and drapery, and in its overall technique is so unlike Van Dyck’s later English portraits that its autograph status was uncertain even until the later 20th Century, with both Larsen and Puyvelde mistakenly publishing a copy as the original. Common to all Van Dyck’s individual self-portraits, however, is their undeniable focus on the immediate impact they make upon the viewer.

In the Holford self-portrait, the emphasis is entirely on Van Dyck’s head and the gold chain at his neck. An x-ray helps explain how Van Dyck achieved the effect - the canvas was quickly prepared with a roughly applied ground layer, but with an extra layer of ground applied in the area of the head. This appears to have been added to give the face a greater luminosity against the thinly painted, dark background. The effect is particularly noticeable in the hair, where the extra area of ground corresponds only to the hair on the top and right hand sides of the head, but not the area of more thinly painted hair on the far left-hand side of the head, which subtly falls away into the dark background. Framed on all sides by varying shades of background and black drapery, Van Dyck’s face is thus projected dramatically towards the viewer. The turn of his head is emphasised by a line of white collar, painted in a single stroke, a motif which can be seen in his considerably smaller first self-portrait. Infra-red analysis has confirmed that the hand is also quickly painted, with a number of pentimenti visible: the perfunctory outline of the hand was first drawn in black paint, and the index finger was originally raised, apparently to accommodate a larger fold of fabric through the hand. In the final image, Van Dyck holds the cloak with this thumb and forefinger. The changes are faintly visible to the naked eye, along with an alteration to the cloak on the lower right.

When examining the present work, either in person or in photographs, Oliver Millar was presumably expecting to see a picture painted in Van Dyck’s English style, with its distinctive flesh colourings, thin application of paint and delicate use of glazes. While glaze was always an important part of Van Dyck’s technique, in the Holford picture bolder pigments are used in areas such as the red in the hands. In Van Dyck’s last self-portrait, glaze is used for all the details in the hair and face to the extent that the moustache and parts of the hair are little more than transparent areas of shadow. But in the Holford self-portrait similar details are painted with much thicker paint, with individual curls of hair richly sculpted with areas of shadow around them. These techniques can be seen other portraits by Van Dyck from about the same period, particularly less formal works of artists such as his 1628 Portrait of Georg Petel, which is of a similar size and format to the Holford self-portrait.

The composition may derive from a portrait by Titian. Van Dyck’s trip to Italy saw him devour Titian compositions and colouring, as recorded in one of his surviving sketchbooks in the British Museum. On his return to Antwerp he set about collecting works for his famous ‘Cabinet de Titian’. In the Holford self-portrait the black drapery is treated in an unmistakeably Titian-esque manner, and two early Titian portraits which share the same compositional device of a sitter looking over his shoulder may have served as Van Dyck’s inspiration for his pose. The first portrait is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and shows an unidentified sitter facing to the right, grasping a cloak with his left hand. The second is in the National Trust collection at Ickworth, and although is now called simply ‘Portrait of a Gentleman’, was once thought to be a self-portrait.

Whatever the inspiration behind the composition, it seems clear that for a time Van Dyck saw the Holford self-portrait as the defining image of himself. His own etching of the head in the portrait, facing to the right, has been dated to about 1630. Described as ‘one of the most highly coveted pieces in the history of printmaking’, the etching later became the frontispiece for Van Dyck’s Iconography of portrait prints, with a body and column added by Jacob Neefs. The portrait was also engraved shortly after Van Dyck’s death (as part of a double print with Rubens, based on a grisaille by Van Dyck) by Paulus Pontius (assisted by Erasmus Quellinus), one of the engravers with whom Van Dyck worked closely on the Iconography. A grisaille of the portrait type is also thought to have existed, which varies in the costume.

Pontius’ posthumous inventory of 1659 states that he owned two portraits of Van Dyck – possibly the present self-portrait was one of them. A more certain reference is then found in the estate of a prominent Antwerp collector, Jan-Baptista Anthoine (d.1691). His lengthy posthumous inventory contains (among numerous works by Van Dyck) ‘Een Contrefeijtsel van Van Dijck met eenen mantel in de handt’, that is, ‘a portrait of Van Dyck with a cloak in his hand’. (It may also be worth noting that the remains of a wax seal can be seen on the reverse of the original lining of the Holford self-portrait; it is known that Anthoine marked the back of his pictures with a wax collector’s seal). Intriguingly, the Holford self-portrait appears to feature in a small ‘cabinet picture’ of c.1659 by Jacob de Formentrou (and other artists) now in the Royal Collection. This painting was previously thought to be a work in which a collection of artists were simply demonstrating their skills and wares. But new research has revealed that the painting almost certainly relates to Jan-Baptiste Anthoine in some way, for the descriptions of a number of pictures listed in his inventory closely resemble those seen in the Formentrou painting. These include a depiction of David with the head of Goliath, a marine scene by Gaspar van Eyck, a still-life by de Heem, a sea piece by Jan Peeters, and a still-life with a swan by Peeter Boel. It is possible that Anthoine is the central figure gesturing to the paintings in the room. The central picture over the fire-place is a miniature rendition by Erasmus Quellinus the Elder of his Judgement of Solomon hanging in Antwerp town hall, and while this cannot have been in Anthoine’s own collection, it is worth noting that one of the people responsible for drawing up Anthoine’s 1691 inventory was Quellinus’ son. While it is not certain that Formentrou’s painting shows Anthoine or specifically his collection (he did not own, at least in 1691, a Rubens self-portrait), there is some logic to a number of his pictures appearing in the painting, for he was one of the leading collectors in Antwerp at the time. Anthoine’s interest in Van Dyck seems to have extended to having his family painted by ‘the little Van Dyck’, Gonzales Coques, whose 1664 portrait of Anthoine and his family borrows repeatedly from Van Dyck’s portraits, most notably The Five Children of Charles I.

The bulk of Anthoine’s collection, including a number of Van Dycks, was later sold by Thomas Francois Joseph, Count de Fraula in Brussels on 21st July 1738. The catalogue descriptions for this sale appear to be rather limited, and Anthoine’s Van Dyck self-portrait is hard to pinpoint with certainty. Three portraits by Van Dyck of similar dimensions which could be the self-portrait are included in the sale. Two are described as portraits of ‘a man’ with a gold chain, and one is described as a portrait of sitter seemingly known to the auctioneers, but with a blank space left in the catalogue where the name was intended to be placed; ‘Het Portrait van Mr... met eenen mantel ende Rabat’.

It is not known when the portrait came to England. Edward Gray is traditionally believed to have had the picture by 1838, but no certain reference to a self-portrait can be found in his few surviving records. He did, however, buy widely from a number of dealers who acquired works from the continent, such as William Buchanan. Prior to this date no secure candidate for the self-portrait has been found in any sale record or major collection in England. The possibility that the self-portrait may have lost its identification at some point in the 18th Century is borne out by a curious note in the 1924 catalogue of the Holford Collection, in which Lionel Cust, the first director of the National Portrait Gallery, is thanked for providing the identification of the sitter.
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