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A Masterpiece Right Under Your Nose

January 14, 2022
portrait of a woman by Anthony van Dyck

Anthony van Dyck

Christopher Wright, a British art historian, just got some news that may lead him to reconsider how good he is at his job. The portrait that he thought was just a copy of an Anthony van Dyck painting that he has hanging in his drawing room… well, turns out he’s got the real deal. In 1970, Wright bought the painting from a dealer in West London for £65, which is a little over £1,000 ($1,400) today due to inflation. The only reason Wright got suspicious about his “copy” is because his friend Colin Harrison, a curator at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, pointed out that there were too many of Van Dyck’s hallmarks for it to be just a copy. That’s when Wright took it to the Courtauld Institute in London for further inspection. The work has since been valued at around £40,000 (or $55,000).

The portrait’s subject is Isabel Clara Eugenia, a woman who deserves her own Starz mini-series at a minimum. She was the eldest daughter of King Philip II of Spain (of Spanish Armada fame), and she ruled the Spanish Netherlands alongside her husband (and cousin) Albert. While Isabel was a powerful woman in her own right, the patriarchal rules governing power in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe meant that her direct rule of the Spanish Netherlands would have ended after Albert’s death in 1621. But recognizing her talent, her nephew Philip IV appointed her Royal Governor after Albert’s death. Isabel and Albert were also great patrons of the arts, supporting Flemish Baroque artists like Peter Paul Rubens and Pieter Brueghel the Younger. During their rule, the Netherlands became one of the great cultural centers of Europe.

Van Dyck was a painter from the Spanish Netherlands who had been an assistant in Rubens’s workshop and was considered a master by age 19. Several European courts employed him as a painter, including Isabel’s near the end of her life. Van Dyck reached the height of his fame painting for the English court of James I, and then later for his son Charles I, who made him the primary court painter. Van Dyck’s portraits of Charles I have since become some of the artist’s most recognizable works, including the triple portrait and the hunt portrait.

Van Dyck’s portrait of Isabel shows her later in life somewhere between 1627 and 1632, as seen by her wearing a nun’s habit. After Albert’s death, she joined the Secular Franciscan Order and lived just outside Madrid at the Descalzas Reales monastery. Van Dyck created many portraits similar to the one in Wright’s possession, including those hanging in the Louvre, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, with copies by other artists in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Prado in Madrid. Besides some yellowing in the varnish, Wright’s Van Dyck is in remarkable condition. Since uncovering the truth about the painting from his drawing room, he has expressed his intent to permanently loan the portrait to the Cannon Hall Museum in the South Yorkshire village of Cawthorne. The museum, located in an old country mansion, houses one of Britain’s greatest collections of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish artworks.