The attribution of this joyful depiction of the Virgin and Child has only recently been elucidated thanks to extensive study by Peter van den Brink. Likely painted as an object of private devotion, it possibly took the form of a diptych, paired with a donor portrait. The Christ Child holds a strand of rosary beads carved from rock crystal and coral, a material believed to have apotropaic properties. Reflecting the heightened importance of the cult of the Virgin, the use of rosaries had become increasingly widespread in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, precisely the period in which this work was created. In the nineteenth century, when it hung in the Vienna residence of the history painter and collector Joseph Kastner (fig. 1), the painting was thought to be by Hans Memling. Ludwig Baldass was the first to link it to Dieric Bouts in 1921, after it had been liberated from substantial, disfiguring overpainting. Over the course of the past century, the painting has been variously held to be completely autograph, a collaboration between the master and his studio, an autograph work by Dieric’s son, Albrecht, and a painting produced by an artist within Bouts’ circle. Dendrochronological analysis of the oak panel establishes an earliest possible date of the painting’s creation, taking into account two years of seasoning, of 1471 (report by Dr. Peter Klein, 22 January 2008). This allows for the possibility that The Virgin and Child with a rosary was made in the final years of Dieric’s lifetime. Van den Brink has noted, however, that in the second half of the fifteenth century, panels of this size were more commonly seasoned for ten years. If this was the case for the present panel, then it seems more likely that the painting dates to 1479, just outside of Dieric’s lifetime. Either way, the work should be considered a product of Dieric’s workshop, since it relies so closely on his design and is executed, both in terms of its style and technique, in a manner that accords with Dieric’s personal style rather than that of his sons.
Due to the popularity of the subject, Dieric Bouts and his workshop produced numerous private devotional panels representing the Virgin and Child, though today only two are universally considered to be entirely autograph, one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the other in the National Gallery, London. There is a wide variation in quality within the other surviving examples, many of which must have been painted for the open market. The issue of the attribution of the present work is made all the more difficult by the fact that Dieric’s workshop continued to operate well after his death, under the direction of his sons, Dieric the Younger and Albrecht. Moreover, Bouts’ workshop cartoons and models were copied frequently by artists not associated with his workshop, such as the Master of Saint Giles and the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend.
It is valuable to compare the present work to the near-identical version in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen (fig. 2). Taking into account that our Virgin and Child with a rosary is slightly cut along the right and lower edges, the two works would originally have had identical dimensions, and, as such, were possibly made from the same cartoon. A third version, with the Virgin and Child set against a landscape background is also known (untraced; see Friedländer, op. cit., 1968, no. 96b), but is of significantly inferior quality and was likely produced by a follower not connected with the Bouts workshop. Both the Copenhagen painting and the present work drew upon a frontal Virgin type established by Rogier van der Weyden and popularized by Hans Memling. Though they are both of similar quality, the Copenhagen painting is stylistically distinct. Beyond the obvious differences in the colors of the figures’ robes, the flesh tones are pinker and more saturated in the present work, and the highlights more emphatic. Most tellingly, the fingers in our version are longer, keeping in accord with the typology favored by Dieric. Working from images, an IRR mosaic, x-radiograph and a dendrochronological report generously provided by Troels Filtenborg, conservator of the Statens Museum for Kunst, van den Brink identified further distinctions between the two paintings. The IRR mosaic of the Copenhagen version reveals fascinating changes to the design, relative to our picture. Most notably, the placement of the rosary matches that of ours in the underdrawing, but was eventually shifted by the artist to its current disposition on the painted surface. The Virgin’s hands were similarly altered in the Copenhagen painting: the initial underdrawing matches our painting’s design, but the fingers become shorter in the finished painting. Most notably, the Copenhagen Virgin’s left hand is significantly shifted in the underdrawing. In contrast, the IRR mosaic of the present work is uninformative – no underdrawing is visible. This does not mean that the artist did not employ one. Most likely, the materials used simply do not respond to infrared reflectography. Comparison of the paintings’ x-radiographs, however, is more informative. Unlike that of the Copenhagen painting, the present work’s x-radiograph (fig. 3) is characterized by strong highlights, which Peter van den Brink notes are similar to those found in both the autograph London and New York Virgin and Child. The Copenhagen painting is on an oak panel with an earliest possible felling date of 1446, and a plausible use date (with two years of seasoning) of 1454. This places it well before the present work, if one assumes a consistent workshop practice in this regard. Taking all of this evidence into consideration, van den Brink concludes that both works were likely painted in Dieric Bouts’ workshop, under the supervision of Bouts himself. They presumably share a common prototype, perhaps a painting or possibly a drawing, with the artist responsible for our painting remaining most faithful to the master’s design, and the Copenhagen painter opting to depart from it in minor but telling ways.
By the 1940s, the present painting had entered the famed collection of Baron Joseph van der Elst. The Baron lived in the United States for much of the decade, first as attaché of the Belgian Embassy in New York between 1940 and 1944, and then as the acting Belgian Consul General in San Francisco until 1946, when he returned to Brussels. In this context, The Virgin and Child with a rosary joined one of the most significant collections of Early Netherlandish paintings of his day, hanging alongside works such as Hans Memling’s Portrait of a man (Frick Collection, New York), Hieronymus Bosch’s Death and the Miser (National Gallery of Art, Washington), and the Master of Frankfurt’s Portrait of the artist and his wife (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp).
We are grateful to Peter van den Brink for generously sharing his research with us for this catalogue note.