Following Vorsterman

Lucas Vorsterman after Agnolo Bronzino (prev. Andrea del Sarto), Holy Kinship, Copperplate Etching, ca. 1622, 234 x 190 mm, London, British Museum

Antonio Vercellini’s letter about Lady Arundel’s portrait session shows that Lady Arundel not only wanted to be portrayed, but was also actively looking for new artistic talent to recruit for the English court. The Countess seems to have been well prepared for this task, as the report implies that she as well as her husband already knew about Van Dyck’s talent, who had just turned twenty-one at the time of the portrait. Rubens’ workshop was an ideal place to look for artists who might be interested in a trip to England. In the following it will be examined whether the male figure depicted behind Lady Arundel might have been a successful recruit.

In his description, Vercellini mentions, in addition to “Madama” Lady Arundel and “Robin nano”, also “il Pazzo”, the fool, and the dog, but says nothing about a portrait of himself or another of his followers. Rather, he quotes Rubens’ promise not to add any further figures to the picture, but only those commanded by Lady Arundel. This suggests that the male figure behind the Countess was added later, possibly only after the completion of the actual composition.

The figure has been commonly interpreted as Dudley Carleton, the English ambassador to the Northern Netherlands. Early on, Mary Hervey has ruled out any interpretation of the character as Lord Arundel. The lack of similarity and poorer quality of the representation, the composition in which the male figure is reduced in size and shown at the margin, the inadequate clothing and the missing order of the garter clearly speak against a representation of the Earl.

However, the peculiar composition also defies a representation of Carleton. With the two servants of the Countess, who accompanied them to her amusement, the ambassador would find himself in rather unflattering company. David Howarth justifies the presence of Carleton with his role as ambassador to the Northern Netherlands and his friendship to both Lady and Lord Arundel as well as Rubens himself. Defore his appointment as ambassador of the United Provinces of the Netherlands in 1616, from 1610 until 1615 Carleton acted as ambassador and art agent for the English court in Venice.

During the early years in The Hague, Carleton and Rubens regularly negotiated on various matters. Well-documented are the negotiations on the sale of the ambassador’s collection of antiquities in trade for paintings by Rubens’ hand and the debate over the purchase of a hunt by Rubens for a diamond necklace whose value was below the estimated price for the work. Howarth himself is aware of the problems with his identification: “Though Lady Arundel is surrounded by vanities in this portrait by Rubens, she is accompanied by the serious figure of Sir Dudley Carleton” (Howarth, Lord Arundel and His Circle 1985).


Anthony van Dyck, Lucas Vorsterman, 1630–32, Etching, 24.5 x 15.6 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Lucas Vorsterman appears a different, very viable option for a man Rubens may have wanted to portray as part of Lady Arundel’s entourage. In an etching by Van Dyck, Vorsterman wears a layered collar like the one in the picture, which, however, in accordance with a change in fashion, lies loosely on top of it, unstarched and without lacework. Although van Dyck’s engraving was created more than ten years later and the figure is depicted in a different medium and probably reversed, the parallels are striking. In particular the characteristic strong swirls of hair on the right temple and the high forehead with the thick, curly hair on the top of the head are the same in both portraits. The parallels in the high cheekbones, the slightly sunken eye sockets and the little pronounced and slightly drooping brows are also striking.

Lady Arundel tried again and again to convince artists around her to travel with her. It is therefore noticeable that immediately after Lady Arundel’s visit to Rubens’ workshop, his relationship with Lucas Vorsterman, employed as his engraver, apparently deteriorated rapidly. In a letter to Pieter van Veen, Rubens mentioned the employment of a graphic artist with whose work he was not entirely satisfied in January 1619. Julius Held identifies this “giovane ben intentionato” with Vorsterman, but at the same time mentions that the production of high-quality graphics only gained importance when Vorsterman joined Rubens’ workshop. If Rubens actually meant Vorsterman in his letter, he consistently underestimated his graphic artist. Numerous circumstantial evidence supports this thesis, and it cannot be ruled out that Vorsterman was also the employee from whose assault Rubens had to be protected with a petition in April 1622 (Held, Rubens and Vorsterman 1982 and Nico von Hout, L’Affaire Vorsterman: Un Affrontement Artistique, 2004).

In a letter dated April 30, 1622, Rubens apologized for the lack of finished prints, which he wanted to send to van Veen as thanks for a passport, with Vorsterman’s arrogance and capriccio in his role as graphic artist:
“ […] Ho caro che VS gusto ancora dhavrer delle mie stampe, pur mi dispiacce che duoi anni in ça non habbiamo fatto niente per il capriccio del mio intagliatore, il quale sie e dato totalmente alla albasia di tal maniera che non si po più trattar nè prattiar seco, presumendo che l ‘intaglio suo solo façcia valer queste stampe qualque cosa et il suo nome tanto illustrious. Con tutto cio posso dire con verità, che li dissegni sono piu finiti et fatti con piu diligenza che le stampe li quali dissegni io posso mostrare ad ognuno poiche li ho in mano […]. ”(Letter from Rubens to Pieter van Veen dated April 30, 1622, Rooses 1898)

Another indication of the difficult relationship between the two artists is a hidden message from Vorsterman on a portrait print allegedly made by Rubens himself of Charles Longueval, Count von Bucquoy: “Dit cost / mij door’t / quaet vonnis / sor (gh?) En noot / Veel / nachten / Waken en / ongerust / heyt / groot ”(quoted from Held 1982). The words carved into the black of the portrait, however, identify the graphic as Vorsterman’s work and vividly testify to Vorsterman’s efforts in the implementation of the master’s standards and the lack of recognition. Ann Diels suggests that the tensions between Vorsterman and Rubens stem from an unfair distribution of the substantial profits from the printing privileges. This might also account to the fact that Vorsterman dedicated two of the prints made after Rubens’ paintings unauthorized to two personal patrons in 1621 (Ann Diels, The Shadow of Rubens 2009).

In a letter of June 19, 1622, Rubens complains about a delay in the completion of the very Battle of the Amazons later dedicated to Lady Arundel:
“[…] Adesso intendo dalla sua amorevolissima delli 12 di maggio quali siano delle mie stampe che li mancano; che mi dispiacce esser poche non havendo noi qualqanni in ça fatto cosa alcuna per il disviamento del mio intagliatore pur quelle poche che sono le mandaro molto voluntieri […] Ho ancora una battaglia d’Amazoni di sei pezzi alla quale manchano pochi giorni di lavoro che non posso cabar delle mani di costui, benché sono tre anni che l’opera è pagata. ”(Rooses 1898).

The term disviamento catches the eye. According to Florio’s dictionary from 1611, disviamento means “a diverting, alluring or drawing out of the right way.” Given the differences between the two artists and the allure Italy represented to every art lover, it is quite possible that Vorsterman decided to join Lady Arundel’s entourage in 1620. Given the relationship between Rubens and Vorsterman at the time of the portrait session and Lady Arundel’s agenda of attracting talented artists, the third man shown as part of her train might very well be the capable graphic artist. The disviamento lamented by Rubens should not be translated as “ègarement”, mental confusion, as Rooses did, but interpreted as a deviation in patronage.

This would make Lucas Vorsterman the first artist Lady Arundel was able to recruit for the English court. In 1624 Vorsterman travelled to London and from then on worked as a graphic artist for Lord and Lady Arundel and the English King. It is likely, however, that Vorsterman followed her not only to London in 1624, but already to Venice between 1620 and 1621. During the same period, Vorsterman dedicated a reproduction of the Holy Family to the Countess. In the dedication, Vorsterman ascribes to Andrea del Sarto the striking composition in which Maria and Johannes look straight at the viewer while the heads of Anna, Jesus and Joseph are grouped around Maria as in a wreath.

The dedication describes the Countess “Excellentissime et Nobilitissime Heroine”, with the addition “utriusque sexus virtute et pietate superatrici.” It implies a familiarity and admiration suggestive less of a brief encounter in Rubens’ studio and more of a longer, intense patronage relationship.

Agnolo Bronzino, Holy Kinship, 1527–1528, Oil on Wood, 101.3 x 78.7 cm, Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art

According to the National Gallery Washington, the print is not based on a painting by del Sarto, but reproduces a painting by Pontormo’s pupil Agnolo Bronzino. As part of the collection of the wealthy Florentine merchant Lodovico Capponi, whom Bronzino portrayed around 1550, the painting, dating to around 1527/28, did not leave Italy before the 20th century. Bronzino’s painting was only sold in 1937 by Count Alessandro Contini-Bonacossi, presumably from the Capponi collection, to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in New York and donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1939 (Catalog of the Italian Paintings of the Washington Gallery of Art 1979).

Unlike later reproductions of paintings and sculptures made by Vorsterman and Hollar, the Holy Kinship was not part of the Arundel collection. The print, dated 1622–1628 by the British Museum, must go back to a drawing that Vorsterman made in Italy before the painting. A comparison with other reproductions by Vorsterman shows that it must have been a rather fleeting sketch. In contrast to the meticulous engravings after Rubens’ works, there are numerous differences between Bronzino’s painting and Vorsterman’s print, which can be explained by a limited amount of time to prepare the preliminary drawing.

The attribution to Andrea del Sarto, the teacher of Bronzino’s teacher Pontormo, as whose painting the original work came to New York, is backed up by a documented, brief, but probably joint visit to the Capponi Collection by Vorsterman and the Countess. Del Sarto’s numerous variations on the theme of the Holy Tribe and his fame would explain the attribution through which Lady Arundel herself may have shown her connoisseurship in front of her newfound companion Vorsterman.


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