This spirited oil sketch by Sir Anthony van Dyck is a rare surviving preparatory study for a major finished work, the artist’s celebrated altarpiece of The Adoration of the Shepherds in Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (The Church of Our Lady) in Dendermonde (fig. 1).
The altarpiece was commissioned by Cornelis Gheerolfs of Dendermonde and was to be placed behind an altar designed by the Brussels sculptor Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Elder (c. 1570-1641), which was completed in late 1629. Although the precise date of when van Dyck was awarded the commission is not known, the altarpiece was discussed in a letter to Gheerolfs dated 21 November 1631. On 24 August 1633, the altar was consecrated by Bishop Antonius Triest (1576-1657), a great patron of the arts who also sat to van Dyck for a portrait (1627-32; whereabouts unknown). The fee van Dyck charged for the commission was 500 guilders, plus 12 guilders 18 stivers for the canvas.
The altarpiece recalls the moment a group of shepherds arrive in Bethlehem soon after the birth of Christ. The shepherds and shepherdesses bring humble gifts; the central figure kneeling before Christ brings a dead lamb, foreshadowing Christ’s death, and the standing female figure reaches into a basket for a gift of eggs, symbolic of birth and redemption. Although this subject was frequently depicted in Western art from the late 15th century onwards, van Dyck sought to heighten the drama of the scene and it is clear from studying both the present work and the final composition that the artist changed his mind numerous times in the preparatory process. Judging from these alterations, it is evident that the ultimate aim was to reduce the width of the composition and increase its height, thereby ensuring the final altarpiece was more imposing and perhaps better suited to the space it was destined for. In the finished picture the artist has moved the donkey and ox from the centre of the composition over to the far left, creating more space in the middle and allowing room for the shepherds to move closer to Christ. By repositioning the figure of Joseph above and behind Mary, the composition also gains height and draws the putti into the narrative arc. Van Dyck also reduced the background elements in the final work to just two classical columns, thereby reinforcing the vertical proportions of the composition and echoing the carved stone altar behind which the painting was situated. In terms of its composition, the final altarpiece would seem to recall Titian’s Pesaro Madonna (1519-26; Venice, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari), a picture van Dyck must surely have encountered and admired during his years in Italy.
The present work is a rare example of the artist employing colour in an oil sketch, which here serves to direct the viewer’s gaze and balance the composition. Naturally, the figure of the Virgin Mary is swathed in blue – a sacred and valuable hue – and the kneeling shepherd, with the hands reaching over the dead lamb, wears a drape coloured with red, perhaps in reference to Christ’s martyrdom. Bold white highlights also lead the viewer’s eye through the composition and connect the different planes of perspective. These fluidly brushed lead white highlights play a central role in van Dyck’s oil sketches from this date and in some works, such as The Ecstasy of Saint Augustine, painted in 1628 and now in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp (see Vey, 2004, op. cit., pp. 276-277, no. III.40), colour is omitted entirely.
For van Dyck, oil sketches such as this played a crucial role in procuring and fulfilling important commissions, and it is therefore surprising how few are now recorded. As Christopher Brown has observed (op. cit.), with the exception of two oil sketches from his years in England, The Garter Procession (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum) and The Great Peece (London, Royal Collection Trust), all the grisaille sketches for van Dyck's history paintings, including those with colour, date to the artist’s so-called ‘second Antwerp period’. During van Dyck's early years in his native city and the subsequent period in Italy, the artist would explore compositional ideas for his more ambitious works using pen and ink on paper, before committing these to canvas or panel. However, following his return to Antwerp from Italy in 1627, van Dyck relied less on paper as a support and began executing his initial thoughts straight onto panel, as seen here. These compositional designs could then be shown to prospective patrons for their approval prior to undertaking a large-scale work. Although working in different mediums, clear parallels can be drawn between van Dyck’s earlier ink studies on paper and his later oil sketches on panel. Whilst his works in oil are naturally more fluid, given the smoother surface on which he was working, the characterisation of his subjects are strikingly similar. The figures' faces, for example, are delineated in the same sharp, economical manner as seen in the earlier ink sketches with only a few quick strokes used to describe the features.
As revealing documents of artistic thought processes and the evolution of compositional ideas, these preparatory oil sketches were highly sought-after and van Dyck was invariably reluctant to part with them. One of the few recorded instances when the artist did allow such a sketch to be sold with the finished work was in May 1631, when he allowed Canon Roger Braye (d. 1632) to keep the preparatory study he made for The Raising of the Cross, an altarpiece Braye had recently commissioned on behalf of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (The Church of Our Lady) in Kortrijk. This gesture was perhaps unavoidable, however, as just one week earlier Braye had expediently sent van Dyck an unexpected gift of a dozen waffles.
According to a wax seal previously affixed to the reverse of this work, the present oil sketch was once in the collection of Jean Baptiste Antoine (d. 1691), Post Master General in Antwerp. Antoine amassed a considerable collection of works by van Dyck and his posthumous inventory drawn up in 1692 lists thirty-five works including portraits of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, a large painting of Saint Sebastian and a number of other sketches and preparatory head studies. Alongside each painting is a value ascribed by the painters and art valuers Jan Erasmus Quellinus (1634-1715) and Pieter van der Willigen (1634-1694). The present study appears as ‘Een schetse Kersnacht van van Dyck’ (‘A sketch of the Nativity by van Dyck’) and was valued at 72 guilders. The preceding work in the inventory was Rinaldo and Armida, one of van Dyck’s undisputed masterpieces in grisaille, painted c. 1634-35 in preparation for an engraving, and now in the National Gallery, London (fig. 2).
A further connection can be drawn between our work and the Rinaldo and Armida panel. Recent dendrochronological analysis undertaken by the Jordaens Van Dyck Panel Paintings Project has found that both works, along with another sketch of Venus disarming Mars (Oxford, Christ Church Picture Gallery), were painted on oak planks sourced from the same two trees from two different regions. Although this work has been shaved and then ‘cradled’ on the reverse at some point in the past, Rinaldo and Armida remains untouched and thus bears the punch mark of the Antwerp panel maker Michiel Vriendt (d. 1637), van Dyck’s main panel supplier during his second Antwerp period. Vriendt, therefore, must have also supplied Van Dyck with the panel used for the present oil sketch.
In the 2004 monograph of van Dyck's paintings, this picture is mentioned under the entry for the Dendermonde altarpiece: ‘A further oil sketch, also varying Van Dyck’s composition, was in a private collection, London, in 1965 (panel 29.5 x 24 cm.)’ (op. cit.). This section of the catalogue, which lists the works given to the artist’s second Antwerp period, was written by the late Horst Vey who, as far as can be established, was only familiar with the sketch through a poor-quality black and white photograph. The virtuosity of the artist’s handling is not discernible in the old photograph due to the extent of later over-paint, which was presumably applied to give the work a more finished appearance and thereby make it more desirable for the market, a practice that van Dyck’s sketches were frequently subjected to. These distracting later interventions may explain why the present work was not assigned an individual catalogue number and discussed at greater length in the 2004 catalogue. With these areas of over-paint now removed, one can fully appreciate the dynamic force of this remarkably instinctive oil sketch.
We are grateful to Professor Christopher Brown for confirming the attribution after first-hand inspection.