Christie's Old Master drawings specialist Stijn Alsteens discusses this portrait by Lucas van Leyden — one of only 28 surviving drawings by the artist — which sold for £11,483,750 at Christie’s in London
‘Lucas van Leyden was a child prodigy, and one of the most important and innovative 16th-century artists,’ says Christie’s Old Master Drawings specialist Stijn Alsteens. ‘His works were praised by Vasari, copied by students in Raphael’s Italian workshop, and laid the way for Rembrandt and Rubens.’
In the enigmatic drawing, which sold for £11,483,750 at Christie’s in London on 4 December, Lucas prefigures what later Dutch 17th-century art becomes so famous for: the attention to everyday life, observation from nature, and a form of unpretentious realism that’s markedly different from the more dramatic and theatrical manner found elsewhere in European art.
The swaggering youth depicted in black chalk is very probably a nobleman given that he is wearing a sword. Dressed in a jaunty hat, he is adorned in thick, heavy swathes of fabric, the deepest shadows of which Lucas has rendered with sharp lines of black chalk, probably wetted to appear even darker.
Ahead of the sale, the specialist took the work to Amsterdam to present a lecture on it at Christie’s Dutch office, and also to compare it to a similar Lucas drawing in the Rijksmuseum. He was looking to confirm his feeling about it having been made circa 1520 — later than generally thought. ‘My theory was backed up by a flower pot watermark revealed through ultraviolet light under the figure’s arm,’ Alsteens explains, ‘which dates the paper to roughly the middle years of the artist’s short life.’
Like the Rijksmuseum’s drawing, this picture was cut out and laid on an album sheet some time in the 17th century, suggesting that by then, works by Lucas were already rare and considered to be precious. Fewer than 20 paintings and only 28 of his drawings survive, and all apart from this one are housed in museums.
‘This is one of less than a handful of truly great Netherlandish drawings from before the mid-16th century to remain outside a museum’ — Stijn Alsteens
The last time a drawing by Lucas appeared on the market was more than 10 years ago. ‘It was subsequently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a deal I oversaw while I was the curator of Northern European Drawings there,’ Alsteens explains. At the time, the undisclosed sum was the highest price ever paid for any drawing by the New York institution.
While researching that deal Alsteens began looking into the history of the present drawing, which was in the collection of Rugby School in Warwickshire. Earlier this year, he finally got the chance to see it in person, on a visit leading to the school’s request for Christie’s to prepare an auction of almost 200 lots from its collections, which are being sold to benefit its endowment fund.
The drawing, along with roughly 100 other works, was given to the school in around 1880 by alumnus and antiquarian Matthew Holbeche Bloxam. ‘We don’t know where Bloxam got it from,’ reveals the specialist, ‘but interestingly, his uncle was Sir Thomas Lawrence, the portraitist, Royal Academy president and great collector of Old Masters. Lawrence almost certainly inspired and directed Bloxam’s passion for drawings.’
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For institutions and collectors alike, the sale of this work represents something of a watershed moment. ‘Aside from it being the last drawing by Lucas van Leyden in public hands,’ says Alsteens, ‘this is one of less than a handful of great Netherlandish drawings from the mid-16th century to remain outside a museum.’