Executed with tremendous freedom and vitality, this hitherto unrecorded head study is a preparatory sketch for van Dyck’s celebrated group portrait of The Magistrates of Brussels, painted in 1634 for the city’s town hall. It is an important addition to the group of head studies associated with the Brussels commission and a further example of the artist’s masterful ad vivum painting technique and ability to capture a likeness with speed and deft handling of the brush.
Four other head studies for the group portrait are known, including two in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, one in a private collection, and the picture rediscovered on the Antiques Roadshow and later offered in these Rooms on 8th July 2014 (lot 18). These sketches would have been rapidly taken from life in the artist’s studio and employed by van Dyck when he came to execute the finished painting. They are all of almost identical dimensions to the present work, and share the same unusual priming of the canvas - the application of a scumbled grey wash over a layer of red bole, which enabled the artist to achieve a remarkable tonal range with a limited palette and an economy of brushwork. Prior to these individual head studies, the magistrates would have approved van Dyck’s idea for the portrait as a whole, which he envisaged in a sketch executed en grisaille (fig. 1; Paris, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts), showing the magistrates positioned around a personification of Justice in a grandiose setting.
The head study in a private collection (S. Barnes, et al., Van Dyck: A complete catalogue of the paintings, New Haven and London, p. 416, no. III. A33 ) can immediately be connected with the seated figure second from left in the Paris sketch, by virtue of it showing the only magistrate to look directly towards the viewer, while the Antiques Roadshow picture is thought to be a study for the figure on the extreme right. The Oxford pictures have until now been associated with the two seated men flanking the central figure of Justice (ibid., pp. 388-9, nos. III. 196 and 197), however, the emergence of the present work would seemingly provide an alternative candidate for the sitter on the left. It could also have served as a study for the sole standing figure to Justice’s right or, indeed, that of the magistrate on the extreme left of the composition.
The figures in the finished portrait were lifesize and once hanging in the Town Hall the impact of the group would have been impressive, as several travellers who saw the work confirmed. The oil sketches are, however, now all that remains of van Dyck’s commission, as the painting itself was destroyed during the French bombardment of Brussels in 1695.