Christopher Wright, 76, is a retired art historian. His expert career was built around 17th-century French painters like Poussin, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. In 1982, he made art-world headlines by exposing that a painting hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and attributed to Georges de La Tour was in fact a forgery.
In 1970, Wright bought a painting of a stern-looking nun for about $90. For 50 years, the painting has hung in his sitting room, judging all his visitors.
But just a few years ago, Wight was visited by his friend Colin Harrison, who is the senior curator of European Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Harrison is the one who first floated the idea that Wright’s nun might be something special. He thought the painting might just be an original work by Flemish master Anthony van Dyck.
Intrigued by the possibility, Wright took his painting to the Courtauld Institute of Art, his own alma mater, to have it verified.
The subject of the painting has been identified as Spanish Infanta Isabella Clara de Eugenia, daughter of Phillip II the king of Spain. She was married to her cousin Albert VII to help cement a stable union between Protestants and Catholics in Europe. As queen, she was patron to many Flemish baroque artists, including Van Dyck. After she was widowed, she joined the Secular Fransciscan Order as a nun. Van Dyck famously did paint her late in her life, and his work is used as the base for many prints, but the original is not known.
Wright’s painting was studied at Courtauld for three years. Because its provenance can’t be traced back before 1937, they cannot state a definitive attribution, but Wright has declared the work an original Van Dyck.