This rapidly brushed head, painted in circa 1617 when van Dyck was working in Rubens’s studio, would appear to be a preparatory study for the artist’s altarpiece, The Descent of the Holy Spirit, now in the Bildergalerie, Schloss Sanssouci, Potsdam (fig. 1).
Many head studies from this period survive, some of which are documented in Rubens’s collection at the time of his death, but the majority would appear to have been executed on paper. In the choice of support, this picture, therefore, constitutes a rare example and can be compared with another work on canvas of the same model: the Double Head Study of a Bearded Man, dated to circa 1618-20, that was sold at Sotheby’s New York, 28 January 2010, lot 176, for $7,250,500, and is now in a private collection (see the exhibition catalogue, eds. A. Vergara and F. Lammertse, The Young Van Dyck, Madrid, 2013, pp. 190-1, no. 35).
That the model for both of these works was clearly a favourite of van Dyck’s is confirmed by the existence of a further study, executed on panel (Man with a Bow and a Sheaf of Arrows, c.1618-20; Bayonne, Musée Bonnat), and the figure’s appearance in several of the artist’s most important early pictures, notably, Suffer Little Children to Come unto Me (c.1618-20; Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada) and Christ Crowned with Thorns (c.1618-20; Madrid, Museo del Prado).
As with many of van Dyck’s and, indeed, Rubens’s head studies, the present work was adapted by a later hand into a larger picture, probably in the late 17th or early 18th century. Perhaps because the aesthetic of the unfinished was not as widely appreciated as it is today, a body and hands were added by a markedly less talented artist, turning the figure (who ironically was probably originally intended to be Saint Paul) into Saint Peter, clumsily holding a pair of keys. The original canvas was inserted into a larger canvas, onto which the body of St Peter was painted, and both canvasses laid onto panel. This later addition has now been removed.
Dr. Christopher Brown has endorsed the attribution to van Dyck after first-hand inspection of the work.