Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Study of the head and hands of a young boy 1618

Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

Study of the head and hands of a young boy, Sir Anthony Van Dyck
oil on paper laid down
17th Century
16 7/8 x 11 3/8 in.; 451 x 295 mm.
Recorded in the collection of James Douglas, 4th Duke of Hamilton (1645 -1712), 12 August 1695, London. By family descent to William Alexander Louis Stephen, 12th Duke of Hamilton (1845 - 95) at Hamilton Palace, Scotland; The Duke of Hamilton's sale, Christie's, London, 8 July 1882, Lot 1033, bt. Warneck, £47 / 5. Collection of E. Warneck Esq., Paris. The Warneck sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 27 May 1926, Lot 37 (repr.). Collection of Fritz Hess Esq., Berlin. Fritz Hess sale, Cassirer-Fisher, Lucerne, 1 September 1931, Lot 13 (repr.). Private Collection, Great Britain.
A list of the right honourable the Earle of Arans pictures at London August the 12,1695. Hamilton Inventories, MSS No. 7; Scottish National Portrait Gallery, No.15. A Boyes Head with two Hands by Vandyke.
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This is one of Van Dyck's most important and sensitive works on paper, a study for the central figure in his major early painting, Suffer Little Children to Come unto Me, now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. The story of Christ blessing the children is recounted in the three synoptic gospels (Matthew 19: 13-15; Mark 10: 13-16; Luke 18: 15-17). The final picture is discussed fully in the museum's catalogue, where it is dated to 1620-21.

This subject was popular in Northern European Painting, but Van Dyck broke from tradition by depicting an actual family group portrait. As such, the composition can be divided into two parts: Christ and three disciples on the left, and the real family of two adults and four children who are being blessed on the right. In this marrying of religious history with contemporary portraiture, Van Dyck distinguishes between Christ and the disciples, who have generalised facial features, and the highly individualised faces and gestures of the family.

Our oil-sketch is a careful preparatory study, from the life, of the face and hands of the kneeling figure who has hitherto been identified as the eldest son of Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577 - 1640). Van Dyck has concentrated the full force of his precocious talent on defining the tender expression of the boy who, in the painting, receives the direct attention of his Saviour. The fluent passages of painting in the flesh are animated with strong tones of red and pink. In other areas, such as the boy's collar, a few cursory strokes of white suffice. In several places, details are etched into the wet paint with the end of a brush. Some of this immediacy and intensity is lost in the final work.

In the study of the boy's praying hands in the lower half of the sheet, the artist has arranged them almost horizontally; in the painting the hands and arms are inclined downward. Since Van Dyck's purpose in the oil-sketch was to make detailed but separate studies of the face and hands, he has made no attempt to link them together as they appear in the finished picture. The hands are painted with great bravura and freedom, contrasting with the more delicate treatment of the face.

The provenance of this oil-sketch is a testament to the connoisseurship and taste of James Douglas, 4th Duke of Hamilton (1658 - 1712), in whose collection it was recorded in London on 12 August 1695, being listed in his Inventory as No. 15, A Boyes Head with two Hands by Vandyke2 The nature of Hamilton's collection signifies an important development in the history of British art collecting.

James Douglas was heir to one of Scotland's oldest and most powerful aristocratic families. The main family residence, Hamilton Palace, contained one of the finest collections in Britain formed primarily by James, 1st Duke of Hamilton (1600 - 49). These included Rubens'' Daniel in the Lion's Den (now in the National Gallery of Washington), Correggio's Head of John the Baptist, two Raphaels and an important group of pictures by Van Dyck.

When he was seventeen years old, James Douglas, Earl of Arran embarked on a Grand Tour through France and Italy that lasted nearly three years. On his return to England, the Earl spent most of his time as a bonviveur at the Court of Charles II in London, where he enjoyed the King's favour.

The twenty-four pictures in James Douglas's inventory (Appendix I) included seven family and three other portraits. The remaining pictures, such as No.19, A little head by Rembrandt, No. 13, A woman's head by Leonardo De Vince, No. 12, An Old man's head by Titian, and No. 8, A man at 1/2 length by Tentorett, can perhaps be seen as the first highly specialised connoisseur's collection of cabinet-sized works in Britain by major artists.

By 1704 these pictures had been removed from London to the Duke of Hamilton's residence in Scotland. Our oil-sketch is recorded in an inventory of 13 October, ‘In my Lord Duk''s Great Clossett,’ as No. 273 A Boys head with two hands by Vandike. Presumably some time after the Duke's death in a duel in Hyde Park, London on 15 November 1712, his collection of pictures from Kinneil was absorbed into the main body of the family collection at Hamilton Palace. An inventory of 7 June 1759 lists the sketch in the First Closet as No. 72 A Boy praying by Vandyke.

It is interesting that the description of the sketch changed from a Study of a head and hands to a Praying figure. This would suggest that it was in the early eighteenth century that areas of the sketch were overpainted to turn it into a more finished composition. These have since been removed in conservation to return it to its original state.
The oil-sketch remained at Hamilton Palace until it was sold by William, 12th Duke of Hamilton (1845 - 95) at Christie''s in 1882, as part of the dispersal of the famous Hamilton Collection.
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