This highly engaging portrait of Joseph van Aken, the artist who acted as Thomas Hudson's drapery painter during the 1640s when he was establishing his reputation as the leading portraitist in London, has not been seen in public since the Lane sale in 1925 and constitutes an exciting rediscovery.
Collins Baker, who saw the picture when it was still in the collection of the publisher, John Lane, observed that it is 'an unusually vivacious and un-Hudson-like instance of his portraiture', and praised the work for being 'alive with character and individuality' (loc. cit.). There is a palpable sense of Hudson untethering himself from the normal restraints of commissions and the expectations of his sitters. The portrait, which is a rare example of Hudson experimenting with his technique whilst revealing the artist's interest in Rembrandt, is not the usual half or three-quarter-length pose and the contrasts of tone are greater than is usually encountered in his work. Van Aken is shown holding his brushes and palette with his arm resting on a primed canvas in a gesture that recalls Rembrandt's self-portrait aged thirty-four (London, National Gallery), a work in which the Dutch master shows his sumptuously Titian-like sleeve resting on a stone parapet.
After his arrival in England in circa 1720 van Aken spent the next decade painting genre works in the Flemish tradition, conversation pieces, and contemporary London scenes, achieving some success with the latter. In the following decade he abandoned independent work and took employment as a drapery painter for other artists, including Joseph Highmore, Allan Ramsay and Hudson. Such was the level of success he attained in this capacity that it lead Horace Walpole to famously declare 'As in England almost everybody's picture is painted, so almost every painter's works were painted by Vanaken' (H. Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England, London, 1786 (reprinted 1871), p. 354).
This portrait, which appears to have been painted towards the end of van Aken's life was seen by George Vertue when still in Hudson's possession. Vertue recalls the picture as being 'painted mighty well and very like him' and describes the sitter as 'a man of good compleaxion [sic.] a good round fatt [sic.] face and shortish stature, a small cast with one eye' ('Vertue Note Books, Volume III', Walpole Society, XII, Oxford, 1934, p. 150). Hudson was a joint executor of the sitter's will along with Allan Ramsay. His younger brother Alexander van Aken (d. 1736) was employed by Hudson as a drapery painter after Joseph's death. Portraits of Alexander by Hudson are in the National Portrait Gallery, London, and The Yale Center for British Art.