The present lot is accompanied by a certificate of authentication from Leo van Puyvelde of 1954 stating that the present lot is by Peter Paul Rubens. He dates the picture to circa 1615 and believes the studies to have served as models for the figures in Rubens' early landscapes.
The present composition, from the studio of Peter Paul Rubens, appears not directly to relate to any finished work by the master. However, not all of Rubens's extent head studies in oils can be related to one of his large compositions. The Head of a Man at the Hyde Collection, Glenn Falls, exhibited in Drawn by the Brush, Bruce Museum, Greenwich Conn., (among other venues) 2004, is a case in point; and apparently not all of the four studies in the most famous example of this type of work, the painting in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels were used by Rubens.
The three studies are similar to the types of boorish females that populate Rubens' early landscapes, as Van Puyvelde points out. The face and position of the central head in our picture, for example, resembles that of the standing maid carrying a basket of fruit on her head in Milkmaids with Cattle in a Landscape in the Royal Collection, London. This standing figure can also be seen in The Adoration of the Shepherds in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille, and in a drawing in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.
Rubens' studio was a busy place with a large number of apprentices of varying ages. His most famous pupil was Anthony van Dyck by whom a number of head studies have survived like the bearded, elderly man, seen in profile and three-quarter profile, at Lyons or the dark bearded man, seen from two angles looking down, at Memphis (see S. Barnes, O. Millar, N. de Poorter, H. Vey, Van Dyck, 2004, nos. 1.90 and 1.91).
The slightly older Jacob Jordaens may have had access to Rubens's studio and he too was to make similar head studies, as, for example, the double study of Abraham Grapheus in the Ghent Museum. Some, but not all of these brilliant displays of characterisation are on paper laid down on panel; others, like the present composition, are painted on a primed panel in which the faces are set against the prepared ground, of which some is left bare.
Such oil sketches of heads, more often of men than of women, were thus popularised by Rubens, and indeed in the specification of works from the artist's collection to be sold after his death in 1640 was listed, but not numbered: 'Une quantit des visages au vif, sur toile, & fonds de bois, tant de Rubens, que de Mons. Van Dyck' (the translation commissioned by Sir Bathasar Gerbier for King Charles I of Great Britain read: 'A parcel of faces made after the life, vppon bord and Cloth as well by sr Peter Paul Rubens as van Dyck', see J. Müller, Rubens. The Artist as Collector, Princeton, 1989, p. 145). These works seem all to have been kept together unframed, and thus stored as a resource rather than as something to be displayed.
As we see in a letter from Rubens to his pupil, Lucas Faydherbe, written towards the end of his life in 1638, the great painter was still using such head studies, for he asked his young assistant to bring to the country three life-size studies of heads which he needed for a painting on which he was working. Rubens had the tendency his to populate his compositions not with stereotypical physiognomies, but with 'real' people inspired by observing everyday faces, as the present study shows.