Dismissed as a Copy for Decades, This Flemish Masterpiece Could Now Fetch Thousands

Purchased by an art historian for $90 in 1970, researchers now say the portrait might be the handiwork of the 17th-century court painter Anthony van Dyck

A portrait of an elderly white woman dressed in simple black and white mourning clothes, holding a black sash tied around her waist
Researchers suspect that a painting bought in 1970 for £65 might be the handiwork of Anthony van Dyck. Featured here is an example of a similar painting, Portrait of Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain as a nun (1626), which was attributed to van Dyck in 2009. This work is part of the collections of the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. Photo by Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

After careful study, researchers now argue that a painting bought by an art historian more than 50 years ago might be the work of Flemish Baroque artist Anthony van Dyck himself, reports Dalya Alberge for the Observer. The owner, art historian Christopher Wright, says it could be worth around $54,000.

In 1970, Wright was a young academic working for little pay at a London library. After earning some extra cash, he decided to splurge on what he thought was another artist’s copy of a van Dyck portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia, the Catholic sovereign who ruled the Spanish Netherlands in the early 17th century.

Wright purchased the canvas from a local antiques dealer for £65 ($90) near his home in London—roughly the equivalent of $1,392 today, accounting for inflation. The painting hung in Wright’s sitting room for decades, where it collected dust and became the subject of jokes among friends, he tells El Paíss Rafa de Miguel.

Wright never considered that the work might be an original until one visitor, curator Colin Harrison, noticed the portrait and encouraged him to have the painting professionally evaluated. Harrison pointed to the skillful rendering of Isabella’s hands as a point in favor of its authenticity.

An image of a pale elderly woman in a nun's habit and, on the right, an image of the reverse of the canvas
Part of a report produced by conservators Kendall Francis and Timothy McCall for the Courtauld Institute of Art, featuring images of the painting owned by art historian Christopher Wright Courtauld Instititue of Art

“Hands are always the hardest thing to paint. And [v]an Dyck was very good at doing it. That was the key that led us to deduce that he had strongly influenced this work,” Wright tells El País.

Conservators Kendall Francis and Timothy McCall spent three years examining and restoring Wright’s painting at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and published their findings in a report.

Francis and McCall concluded that the work could be tentatively attributed to van Dyck or his studio, but cautioned against leaping to any conclusions. Van Dyck and his workshop painted several versions of this same Infanta  portrait, which were copied nearly verbatim from earlier renderings by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, reports Jasmine Liu for Hyperallergic. The queen also probably never sat for this portrait.

“Since these paintings so closely resemble each other, it can be very challenging to determine the extent to which van Dyck’s studio assistants were involved in their creation,” write Francis and McCall in their report. “The lack of documentation about workshop practice during this period makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about paintings thought to be by van Dyck but not readily attributable to Dyck’s oeuvre.

A self portrait of a young man with blonde wavy hair, posing in dark clothes with his hands positioned in front and under his chin
Anthony van Dyck, Self-Portrait, ca. 1620-1 Public domain via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Francis and McCall date Wright’s painting to between 1628 and 1632. During this time period, van Dyck’s career was beginning to take off. The artist became court painter for Charles I of England in 1632, where he created some of his best-known portraits, according to London’s National Gallery.

In Wright’s newly restored painting, Isabella the infanta is depicted standing with a serious expression. The queen had previously donned elaborate gowns and jewelry for royal portraits. In this work, however, she wears a nun’s habit to signal the mourning for her late husband, Archduke Albert VII of Austria, who died in 1621.

For his part, Wright expresses confidence that the work can be attributed to van Dyck, reports Sarah Cascone for Artnet News. He plans to display the work publicly and has already placed the work on long-term loan to the Cannon Hall Museum in the U.K.

Francis and McCall offer a more measured assessment: “The adroit skill leads us to tentatively propose that [it] can be attributed to Van Dyck’s workshop and that it was completed during his lifetime and under his supervision,” they write.

Now 76 years old, Wright lives in Crete after retiring from a long career studying Flemish and French painting. The art historian has argued about the attributions of paintings before; he found a George Stubbs portrait at the Ferens Art Gallery in the U.K., per Artnet News. According to Hyperallergic, Wright made headlines in 1982 when he and other art historians argued that the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Fortune-Teller was a fake. (The museum still attributes the painting to French artist Georges de la Tour. Other curators and experts have also contested Wright’s claims.)

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