For almost sixty years, the almost candid painting of the Holy Family has hung in a town hall in Brussels, in their urban-planning office. They knew the painting, in its gloomy colors and familial setting, was the work of Flemish Baroque master Jacques Jordaens, but everyone assumed it was a reproduction.
But during the closures of 2020, someone in the Brussels city government decided to do an inventory of the city’s rather vast collection of publicly-displayed art. They brought in experts from the Royal Institute of Artistic Heritage to examine the over 800 works in the Saint-Gilles town hall, and it was then that they realized what they had – the painting is an original.
Experts from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, and the Jordaens Van Dyke Panel Paintings Project helped to authenticate the work, confirming its attribution and pinning its origin down to between 1617 and 1618. It isn’t the only version of this same scene that Jordaens has painted, but it is apparently the oldest. Better preserved, more vivid and expanded versions of the same scene can be seen in several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. It seems likely that this earliest version is a study, a detailed rough draft of the most important part of the painting, that centered on the Infant Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
“This discovery really makes an impression,” said Hilde de Clercq, director general of the Royal Institute in a statement. She went on to add that it proves the value of conducting regular inventories of public heritage.
Analysis of the wood panel underlying the painting showed that it came from the same tree as several panels used by Anthony van Dyck, another Baroque master and contemporary of Jordaens, providing strong support to the theory that the two painters shared studios for period of time.
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