An art historian discovers that the painting for which he barely paid 80 euros is a real ‘van dyck’ | Culture

This is a perfect story to show that a headline can sometimes be true but not accurate; and a painting can be original, without ever knowing if it is 100% original. When the art historian Christopher Wright worked in a London library, back in 1976, he earned 20 pounds a week (about 23 euros today). And he made some extra money with his first academic essays. The portrait of the Infanta of Spain Isabel Clara Eugenia, which he bought from an occasional art dealer in the city center, the kind who sold a chair, a wardrobe, a chandelier or an old painting, cost him 65 pounds. More than three quarters of your monthly salary. About 80 euros, at the current exchange rate. Almost half a century later, with a professional career already consolidated, Wright discovered almost by chance that this work, the face of a grim woman in the habits of a nun, had the hand of the Flemish genius of painting, Anton van Dyck (Antwerp, 1599 -London, 1641).

“A good friend of mine, who is the Curator of European Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Colin Harrison, came to visit me and stared at the portrait: ‘It is such a well done work. I’m sure it’s a Van Dyck ”, explains Wright, 76, by phone to EL PAÍS from his current retirement in Greece. And what was the detail that led you to that intuition? The hands of the infanta. “Hands are always the most difficult thing to paint. And Van Dyck was very good at doing it. That was the key that led us to deduce that his intervention in the piece had been a lot ”, he explains.

Wright took the work to the Courtauld Art Institute in London, where the pandemic and other works held the portrait there for almost three years, until the institution issued its final report: “We cannot definitively say that it is a Van Dyck, but because of the technique and the lines, everything indicates that it is a work with his direct intervention, ”says the historian who was told.

The portrait of the Infanta of Spain Isabela Clara Eugenia with direct intervention by Van Dyck.

Van Dyck produced more than a thousand works during his entire professional career. He worked for the court of Jaime I, in England, and for the Infanta of Spain Isabel Clara Eugenia and her husband, Archduke Alberto VII of the Netherlands. At the death of this, Isabel remained as regent in Holland. Her multiple government assignments, Wright relates as a possible story, did not allow her time to pose in her new austere widow’s habits. Her husband died in 1621, and she remained in power until his death in 1633. All the splendid dresses and glittering jewels with which she had allowed herself to be portrayed in her younger years gave way to a serious, rigorous and somber image. . And many portraits were necessary for the official dependencies.

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Based on an original painting by Rubens, Van Dyck made his full-length work, which remains on display at the Sabauda Gallery in Turin. A multitude of copies were made in the artist’s studio, and in some of them it was not his assistants, but the teacher himself, who was in charge of the final touch-ups. “I will never be able to say that it is a real Van Dyck, but that was the joke in my house when I bought the copy in 1976. What I could not imagine was that the hand of the artist was so behind this particular work,” says Wright .

He has no intention of selling a painting for which he could, in all probability, fetch a millionaire figure. He has decided to donate it permanently, for public display, to the Cannon Hall Museum in Barnsley, where a remarkable collection of 17th century Dutch and Flemish paintings already exists.

Wright has worked for five decades in the art world, publishing dozens of relevant works. During all this time he has discovered the hand of renowned artists behind allegedly anonymous works in public or private collections. For example, his work led to the discovery of an original portrait of Stubbs in the Ferens Art Gallery in the town of Hull.


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