Reynolds recalled of Gainsborough in the Discourse dedicated to his great rival, delivered to the Academy on 10 December 1788, that 'To satisfy himself as well as others, how well he knew the mechanism and artifice which they employed to bring out that tone of colour which we so much admire in their works, he occasionally made copies from Rubens, Teniers, and Vandyck, which it would be no disgrace to the most accurate connoisseur to mistake, at the first sight, for the works of those masters. What he thus learned, he applied to the originals of nature, which he saw with his own eyes; and imitated, not in the manner of those masters, but in his own' (J. Reynolds, Discourse on Art, XIV, London, 1788, ed. R.R. Wark, London, 1966, pp. 222-3).
This portrait of Albert de Ligne, Prince of Arenberg and Barbonçon is based on Sir Anthony van Dyck's celebrated equestrian portrait of the sitter in the collection of the Earl of Leicester, Holkham Hall, Norfolk (fig. 1). While in the past Gainsborough's copy was thought probably to have been painted in 1785, when he visited Holkham Hall with a view to executing a companion equestrian portrait of the Prince of Wales for Thomas, 1st Earl of Leicester (a commission that was never carried out), we are grateful to Hugh Belsey for pointing out that, stylistically, the painting appears to date from the 1760s. That Gainsborough had not seen the original when executing his copy is also suggested by the different colours of the sitter's sash. The castle, in the distance to the viewer's left, does not appear in the original nor any of the prints after it, and seems to be an invention of Gainsborough's, while the inclusion in an engraving by Pieter de Bailliu of a forked branch in the lower right hand corner, points strongly to that being Gainsborough's source. Hugh Belsey has further suggested that the production of this copy may have been connected to Gainsborough's preparation for his great Equestrian Portrait of Lt.-Gen. Philip Honywood (exhibited at the Society of Artists, 1765, now John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida).
Albert de Ligne, Prince of Arenberg and Barbonçon (1600-1674) was Commander-in-Chief of the Spanish forces in the Netherlands. He was appointed Knight of the Golden Fleece in 1627 and received the Golden Chain of the Order, which he is depicted wearing, at Brussels in 1628. Arenberg was imprisoned in the Antwerp Citadel from 1634-1642 for his involvement in a plot against the Spanish monarchy.
Although Gainsborough copied paintings by Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Teniers and Velázquez, the majority of copies after Old Masters that survive relate to works by van Dyck. Indeed, this portrait is one of the seven copies that Gainsborough made of the Flemish painter's work that remained in his studio until his death, all of which were later included in the artist's posthumous sale at Schomberg House in 1789. As Rosenthal has observed, through Gainsborough's studying of van Dyck's portraiture, his 'own work responded both in format and handling, attaining an extraordinary virtuosity in the painting of costume' (M. Rosenthal, The Art of Thomas Gainsborough: 'A little business for the Eye', New Haven and London, 1999, p. 42). It was, however, not only the technical brilliance and compositional elegance of van Dyck's work that so influenced the artist, but also his status as a courtier, following that enjoyed by Rubens and Titian, which Gainsborough himself was determined to attain. Gainsborough's admiration for the Flemish painter is perhaps no better illustrated than in his purported dying words: 'We are all going to Heaven, and Vandyke is of the company' (W.T. Whitley, Thomas Gainsborough, London, 1915, p. 306).