Found in a barn, bought for $600 and sold for $3.1 million. The singular story of a painting by Van Dyck

by time news – Purchased in 2002 for just $600, it was resold for $3.1 million in an auction at Sotheby’s: is the singular destiny of a sketch of “San Gerolamo” by Anton van Dyck, beaten last Thursday at the New York “Masters Week”. The work by the 17th-century Flemish artist had been purchased at an auction by an American collector, Albert B. Roberts, after being found in a barn in Kinderhook, New York State. Roberts is an aficionado of ‘lost’ work, to the point that he describes his collection as “an orphanage for lost and abandoned art”.

In 2019, art historian Susan J. Barnes published an article in which she recognized the sketch as an oil sketch by Van Dyck dated around 1618 “surprisingly well preserved” which “helps us to understand more about the artist’s method as a young man”.

“Study for St. Jerome” depicts a naked elderly man and is one of only two large studies made of live models by the Flemish artist. This was probably done when the young Van Dyck was working alongside Peter Paul Rubens in Antwerp. The drawing was conceived as a preparatory work for the painting dedicated to Saint Jerome, now kept in the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam.

A portion of the proceeds will go to the Albert B. Roberts foundation which helps artists and other charities. The sale was part of the “Master Paintings Part I” auction featuring works by Bronzino (“Portrait of a Young Man with Quill and Sheet of Paper” by Bronzino which fetched $10.7 million), Titian (“Ecce Homo” sold for 2.1 million) and Melchior de Hondecoeter.

The current auction record for a Van Dyck is $13.5 million, set in 2009 for a self-portrait.

Although the dry musculature of the man depicted in the “Study for San Gerolamo” is based on a live model, the body type has its roots in both antiquity than in the work of Rubens, with whom the young Van Dyck worked closely in those years. The pose derives from the so-called Borghese Fisherman, antique black marble now in the Louvre. In the time of Rubens and Van Dyck, the statue was thought to represent the ancient philosopher Seneca, shown dying from self-inflicted stab wounds and standing in a basin of his own blood.

In reality, the statue is a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, which had no legs below the mid-calf when it was discovered in the 16th century and probably represents a fisherman standing on a beach. Anyway, marble fascinated Rubens: made several later drawings and his Death of Seneca is largely based on his studies of this ancient figure.

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