Originality and genius are at the forefront of “great” art. But, what happens when what we think we know about a painting or an artist is undone? This oil on canvas portrait of James Stuart, Duke of Lennox and Richmond attributed to the School of Anthony van Dyck c. 1641 unravels our notions of authenticity and mastery. It tells the tale of collaboration, large scale production, and collecting.
Theme music by Phil Vivori.
Special thanks to Britany Rubin, Print Room Curatorial Assistant at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, for her expertise and content editing.
Craig Langlois: Welcome to What’s in the Basement? a new podcast from Berkshire Museum. In each episode, we will explore objects and stories from our collection of over 40,000 pieces of art, historical artifacts, and natural specimens. I’m Craig Langlois, Chief Experience Officer for the Berkshire Museum and host of What’s in the Basement?. Today we are joined by:
Jasmine: Hi Craig, thanks for having me. I’m Jasmine, School and Teacher Programs Manager at Berkshire Museum.
Craig: Welcome Jasmine. What object are we exploring today?
Jasmine: We are looking at an oil portrait of James Stewart, Duke of Lennox and Richmond. Painted on canvas circa 1641 and attributed to the studio of Anthony Van Dyck. The portrait is quite large, measuring 7 feet in height and slightly under 4 feet in width. We see James Stewart standing in a contrapposto pose with his right knee bent forward, his weight braced on his left leg, and his left arm posed on his hip. His body is turned slightly away from the viewer, though his face turns back to us looking. He is dressed handsomely, in a voluminous black coat with white lace collar, and white embroidered flowers, one on each arm. His ensemble is completed with black britches, white stockings, black heels, and a gorgeous gold chain necklace with the insignia of The Order of the Garter, England’s highest order of chivalry. James stands with his Greyhound at his right side, his hand resting on the dogs upturned head. The duo are posed in front of a rich olive drapery and stand on a beige floor.
Craig: Thanks Jasmine, lets dig a little deeper. Who was James Stewart, Duke of Lennox and Richmond?
Jasmine: James Stewart was the 3rd cousin of Charles I, King of England. James was a Scottish Nobleman who served as a privy councilor and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports for a short time. He was a key member of the Royalist party in the English Civil War. The Royalist party fought against the Parliamentarians to maintain the monarchy, but, were ultimately defeated and the King lost his head.
Craig: Jasmine, you mention that this piece is attributed to the studio of Anthony Van Dyck. I have a few questions about this, but first let’s start with the artist himself. Who was Anthony Van Dyck?
Jasmine: Yeah, so Anthony Van Dyck was a 17th Century Flemish Baroque artist. He got his start in painting as a young child and spent a number of years learning as a pupil of the famed artist Peter Paul Rubens. Anthony Van Dyck became a master painter and joined the Guild of Saint Luke which represented all working artists of the low countries at the age of 19. Van Dyck worked in multiple countries including his home country of Flanders as well as in Italy before settling at the court of Charles I in England as the main portrait painter for the Kings court. It was at the English court that we see his style evolve and his output increase. In his short lifetime, we know Anthony Van Dyck painted hundreds of pieces in addition to being an accomplished printmaker.
Craig: Is that why our piece is attributed to his studio instead of him? And a follow up question, is our painting of James Stewart by Anthony Van Dyck?
Jasmine: You’re absolutely right. Anthony Van Dyck produced a staggering number of works. He was able to accomplish this by employing a traditional program of setting up a workshop in his studio. He relied heavily on apprentices and contracted artists, especially during his tenure in England, who had come to Van Dyck’s studio to learn the trade of painting from a master painter. This is analogous to learning a specialized subject from a professor. However, Van Dyck had a practical need for these apprentices. As the head court painter of Charles I, he was not only contracted to paint the King and his wife Henrietta Maria. He was also painting family members, courtiers, and friends of the Royal Family. He was extremely busy.
To allow him to paint at the volume he needed, he relied on his studio like many artists had done in the past. Van Dyck would sketch a portrait, sit her for an hour at a time, sometimes this was multiple hour-long sittings over days or a week. Then he handed the sketch to his apprentices. His apprentices would then take the sketch, enlarge it, and paint it on a canvas with special attention given to the background and accessories. If the sitter wanted to be depicted in an intricate costume, Van Dyck would deputize a painter well-versed in cloth depiction to fill in the details. After these steps were complete, Van Dyck himself would paint the face of the sitter, and voilà. An Anthony Van Dyck piece was complete.
I want to make extremely clear though, this was a common practice for master artists, especially those as highly sought after as Anthony Van Dyck. In turn, those employed in the studio system considered these portraits part of a rigorous and prestigious education. And many under Van Dyck’s tutelage became independent masters in their own right. Especially when you take into consideration that the patron often did not request just the one piece, they often asked for duplicates on the same scale and sometimes a little smaller to give as gifts to relatives, foreign dignitaries, and friends. Our current notions of authenticity don’t fit in with workshop production, but these pieces touched by Van Dyck’s hand for the finishing details are every bit authentic.
Craig: Jasmine, is that why our piece is attributed to his studio instead of him? Is our Painting of James Stewart by Anthony Van Dyck?
Jasmine: This piece was a gift by our Museum’s founder Zenas Crane. It was gifted to the Berkshire Museum in 1913. Though I don’t know the exact details of how this piece came into Zenas’ possession, I do know that there was a huge boom in the art market in the later 19th and early 20th centuries when pieces attributed to artists practicing before 1800 popped up at auction houses and in private sales. Buying works attributed to famous and infamous painters was extremely in vogue at the time and we see quite a few purchase records that detail the sale of pieces to moneyed buyers as authenticated works that were taken on the word of a connoisseur, and in recent years those attributions have been debunked.
Craig: Jasmine, our last question on What’s in the Basement? always revolves around the concepts of relevancy. What made you choose this piece to talk about today?
Jasmine: I chose this piece first because I think its gorgeous. The deep hues, amazingly rendered fabrics, and the iconography of James Stewart with his trusty greyhound are breathtaking. The painting underwent early conservation work to fix two bullet holes through cheek and chin and a slash several feet long down the canvas, which is a fun bit of history on the piece. But I also chose this painting for what it represents. In art historical thought on authenticity and artist hand as well as collections practices by cultural institutions. As art historians, we are forever debating “What is art?”, “What is fine art?” and “What makes an artist great?” This painting embodies that debate. It takes the historian, collector, conservator, and viewer on a journey through that debate. It was likely bought not only for its beauty, but also the artist’s name attached, with Anthony Van Dyck’s connection adding to its brilliance. As the work was further examined, it became increasingly less likely that Anthony Van Dyck painted much more than the face of James Stewart and maybe not even that. For some, that makes the piece less than, but I would argue it makes it all the more interesting that another extremely talented painter accomplished something so grand. Its also representative of how our collection and other museums’ collections are living and breathing. They’re constantly changing and evolving. I think that’s a really special aspect of museum work.
Craig: Museum basements can be magical places, even though we can’t have all 40,000 objects on display, we can glimpse at the depth and breadth of the Museum collection through programs like this. I’m Craig Langlois, Chief Experience Officer for the Berkshire Museum, I hope you can join us for future episodes of What’s in the Basement? Special thanks to Britney Ruben, print room curatorial assistant at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art for her expertise and editing.