Rubens or Van Dyck?
July 2 2012
There was a curious story in the Sunday Times yesterday (paywall) about the above portrait of Van Dyck, owned by the Rubenshuis. Apparently, a new type of x-ray has persuaded some scholars to change the attribution to Van Dyck; thus it is a self-portrait. The story was a little garbled, and the full research has not been published yet. But the gist was that the x-rays revealed a picture beneath the portrait which was close to the type of thing painted by Van Dyck at that time. Thus the portrait on top was more likely to be by Van Dyck.
The attribution of the painting has gone back and forth between Rubens and Van Dyck over the years. Personally, I always leaned towards Rubens, but not with great certainty. Early Van Dyck is fiendishly difficult, not least because he was a master of assimilation. Laughably, the self-appointed Van Dyck 'scholar' Erik Larsen once suggested, in his Van Dyck 'catalogue raisonne' that the picture did not only not show Van Dyck, but that it was by George Jamesone.
So I hesitate to pronounce on the evidence published so far. But this is a blog, and on blogs you're allowed to be a little cavalier. So for me, the x-ray theory sounds a trifle odd. This is mainly because even snazzy new x-rays don't let you determine what a painting beneath a painting looks like to the extent that you can make an attribution. In this instance the attribution is made more difficult by the obvious fact that Van Dyck was then working in Rubens studio. Furthermore, the composition doesn't strike me as a self-portrait. It is very different to Van Dyck's own undisputed early self-portrait in Vienna.
Finally, I am increasingly wary of what appears to be almost a new fashion amongst some Rubens scholars to take work from the period of Rubens' career when Van Dyck was working for him, and give it instead to Van Dyck. Such decisions often happen despite the opinion of previous Van Dyck scholars that the work in question was not by Van Dyck.
So I look forward to seeing all the new evidence, but for now I stick with the opinion of many Van Dyck scholars that it is the work not of their man, but Rubens.
Update - a reader writes:
I wish my George Jamesone portraits were nearly as good as the Rubens/Van Dyck portrait in today's blog. Jameson's work is now for the first time in years well illustrated by his room in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, those pictures vary in condition and quality, and it is great to see them on display,but are still of course a bit provincial by comparison.