Christopher Wright has dedicated his career to publishing monographs on 17th-century painters such as Poussin, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. An author also of Georges de La Tour and Art of the Forgery, in 1982 he found himself at the center of an art-world controversy when he went on 60 Minutes and identified a Metropolitan Museum of Art-owned de La Tour painting as a fake.
Now, he’s convinced that a painting of Spanish Infanta Isabella Clara de Eugenia, which he purchased for £65 (~$88) in 1970, is an Anthony van Dyck original. Reporting from news outlets over the weekend has trumpeted Wright’s find, with the Guardian proclaiming “the painting on his wall is work of Flemish master.”
At 76 years old, Wright is retired and lives in Crete. For over 50 years, the Infanta painting hung in Wright’s sitting room, and visitors — including other artists and colleagues — would joke with him about the “terrible-looking woman” presiding over the room. Most recently, Colin Harrison, senior curator of European Art at the Ashmolean Museum, found himself in Wright’s home, where the Infanta portrait caught his eye. Harrison insisted that the painting looked like a van Dyck. So Wright took the painting to the Courtauld Institute of Art, where he has both studied for a master’s degree and worked in the Witt Library, for further research and analysis to be done.
In the painting, the Infanta Isabella is dressed in a nun’s habit, with her posture turned to the left and her hands crossed before her. The daughter of the king of Spain, Phillip II, she was married to her cousin Albert VII. Their marriage played an important role in forging political stability in a time of religious turmoil in Europe between the Protestants and Catholics. Van Dyck’s likeness of the Infanta quickly became the most recognizable one as he entrusted an engraving specialist to make prints based on his portrait, which provided the public with a way to connect with the Infanta, who as a Franciscan ruler made infrequent public appearances.
For three years, Wright’s painting was carefully studied by two graduate students in art history, Kendall Francis and Timothy McCall, under the close supervision of faculty. As part of their research, they traveled to Turin, where the Galleria Sabauda, a division of the Musei Reali, hosted an exhibition entitled Van Dyck, Court Painter. An entire room there was dedicated to portraits of the Infanta Isabella, a prominent patron of van Dyck’s, where three pertinent paintings were on display: the original painting by Rubens that van Dyck consulted to paint his own (the Infanta likely did not do a live sitting for van Dyck); a three-quarter length portrait produced by van Dyck and his workshop; and a full-length portrait attributed to van Dyck. Studying these gave Francis and McCall the opportunity to robustly compare similarities and differences between paintings of that period created outside van Dyck’s workshop, in his workshop, and by the great master himself.
In particular, Francis and McCall focused on the portrayal of the Infanta’s hands and face. The hands, which they described as “highly finished,” were the feature of the painting that first jumped out to Harrison. They found the brushwork on the face, however, to be coarser and closer in technique to the workshop version than the van Dyck one.
The differences between van Dyck’s representations of the Infanta and Rubens’ initial painting are also noteworthy. While Rubens’ painting depicts the Infanta with a mournful look, van Dyck transforms her into an assured, confident ruler. In this stage of his career, van Dyck, a student of Rubens, looked to distinguish his style from his master’s.
Since the provenance for Wright’s painting only goes back to 1937, attribution of the painting can only be done through observation of its stylistic and technical aspects and study of primary source documentation about his workshop practice. At least 20 versions of the painting associated with van Dyck’s workshop are known to exist, though many more are likely out there. “Since these paintings so closely resemble each other, it can be very challenging to determine the extent to which van Dyck’s studio assistants were involved in their creation,” Francis and McCall wrote. “The lack of documentation about workshop practice during this period makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about paintings thought to be by van Dyck but not readily attributable to Dyck’s oeuvre.”
Wright is an advocate for enlarging the oeuvre of accepted attributions to van Dyck. While the definitive catalogue published in 2004 by Yale University Press only recognizes one original Infanta portrait painted by van Dyck, multiple versions exist in prestigious institutions around the world, including the Galleria Nazionale di Parma, Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, and the Louvre, Wright points out. Wright values his painting at £40,000 (~$54,500). But there is no final verdict on whether van Dyck painted Wright’s portrait — contrary to reports otherwise. Wright has now put the painting on permanent loan to the Cannon Hall Museum in Barnsley.