This newly discovered portrait has been identified as the painting praised by the English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds during a 1781 visit to the cabinet of the Prince de Ligne in Brussels. Following his visit, Reynolds noted that ‘There is nothing here worth attention except a whole-length portrait of John Count of Nassau, by Vandyck’ and went on to state that ‘[t]he character and drawing are admirable’ (loc. cit.). Reynolds further compared the quality of its execution to the much-heralded portrait of Thomas Wentworth, Viscount Wentworth and later 1st Earl of Strafford (The Duke of Grafton, Euston Hall, Suffolk). Prior to its reappearance, the painting had been known exclusively through two bust-length engravings in reverse, one by Lucas Vorsterman and another by Pieter Soutman and Jonas Suyderhoef. An inscription at the bottom of Vorsterman's print, which was produced for inclusion in van Dyck's Iconography, locates the painting in the collection of the sitter’s wife, Ernestine Yolande, Princess of Ligne (fig. 1).
John VIII was a German-born Protestant nobleman who began his military career fighting for various Protestant causes in the United Provinces and elsewhere between 1605 and 1611. The following year he converted to Catholicism at the urging of his future wife, whom he would wed in 1618, and switched his allegiances. In 1614, he served under the command of Charles Emmanuel, Duke of Savoy, against Spanish forces. Between 1615 and 1617, he was in the employ of the Regent of France, Marie de Medici, and fought against rebellious noblemen. Thereafter, he took up arms alongside Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor against his Protestant kinsmen in the United Provinces. Alongside Spanish forces under the command of Ambrogio Spinola, John partook in the successful siege of Breda between August 1624 and June 1625 and features prominently, his eyes fixed on the viewer, third from left in the Spanish camp in Diego Velázquez’s The Surrender of Breda of circa 1635 (fig. 2; Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid).
On account of the handling and the similarity of the sitter’s age with the well-known full-length portrait of the count in the collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein, this painting is datable to about 1628-29, a period when he was at the height of his military career. The count is dressed in a full suit of armor in the Liechtenstein portrait but here wears a cuirass over a jerkin embroidered with gold thread, over which the Collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece is plainly visible. The baton of command held in his right hand further identifies him as a military commander, while his left hand resting on the sword hilt signals his nobility.
The count must have been close with van Dyck in the period. In addition to the full-length portrait in the collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein and this painting – which was likely cut down to its current format at some point after Reynolds saw it – in 1634 he sat for a large family portrait with his wife and four children (Trustees of the Firle Estate Settlement, Firle Place, Sussex). A half-length grisaille, which may have served as the model for Paulus Pontius’ engraved portrait of the count in armor for the Iconography, is also known (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlung, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). The success of the present picture is confirmed by the existence of no fewer than three painted copies, including examples today at the Mauritshuis, The Hague, and Paleis Het Loo, Apeldoorn, the latter of which likewise depicts the sitter three-quarter-length.