Portrait of Johan, Count of Nassau-Siegen, Johan the Younger (1583-1638) c.1630
Studio of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)
“Van Dyck painted Johan the Younger on a number of occasions. The present work must date from no earlier than 1627, the year Johan was awarded the Order of the Golden Fleece.”
Oil on Canvas
27 x 21½ inches; 69 x 55 cm
European private collection
Johan of Nassau-Siegen, also known as Johan the Younger, was typical of Van Dyck’s sitters on his return to the Netherlands from Italy in 1627. Johan was an influential ruler of the small west German state of Nassau-Siegen, and was closely related to the house of Orange-Nassau in the Netherlands. He is known mainly for his decision (against the prevailing fashion) to change from Protestantism to Catholicism.
Johan’s conversion was primarily the result of falling in love with the Catholic Princess Ernestine of Ligne, whom he married in 1618. But it was also symptomatic of the religious wars then spreading across Europe. Lutheranism, and to a lesser extent Calvinism, had provided a catalyst to those many small German and Dutch states who wanted to break away from the Catholic Habsburg Empire. Religious and political allegiances were therefore inextricably linked, and Johan’s change in religion necessitated a similar change in political allegiance. So, despite having been a successful military commander against the Habsburgs in the Netherlands from 1605-11, Johan switched sides, and fought for the Habsburgs - even against his own family. Despite high office and honours (he was appointed General of Cavalry in the Spanish Netherlands in 1631) Johan was unable to stem the slow collapse of Spanish rule in the Netherlands. His rule ended ignominiously in the mid 1630s, after his Protestant brothers occupied Nassau-Siegen.
The rediscovery of this picture sheds light on Van Dyck’s studio practice, and may also prove useful in understanding Van Dyck’s production method for his celebrated Iconography. The picture was painted in Van Dyck’s Antwerp studio, where it would have come under his supervision, and possibly even intervention. We can be certain that Van Dyck made wide use of studio assistants during his second Antwerp period of 1627-32, even though we know hardly anything as to their identities. Horst Vey states that all Van Dyck’s works at this period were “collaborative to some degree”1, and Christopher Brown notes that Van Dyck’s other pictures of Johan of Nassau, in this case a full-length of c.1628/9, “includes substantial studio participation”.2 Clearly, therefore, Van Dyck’s most important patrons understood and accepted that a large degree of studio assistance was inevitable in all his works, not least because they themselves often specifically requested multiple repetitions.
This portrait relates to an engraving published by Van Dyck as part of his celebrated Iconography, a series of prints of famous contemporaries published by Van Dyck from 1630 onwards. A complete edition was published posthumously in 1645, and included some 100 works. The absence of any original and wholly autograph version of this picture might suggest that Van Dyck simply directed assistants to produce head and shoulder likenesses adapted from his larger works, which would have been more suitable for engraving on a reduced scale. The print of Johan the Younger was engraved by Lucas Vorsterman, evidently one of Van Dyck’s favoured engravers, and is marked lower left, ‘A Van Dyck pinxit.’
Van Dyck painted Johan the Younger on a number of occasions. The present work must date from no earlier than 1627, the year Johan was awarded the Order of the Golden Fleece. Van Dyck’s first full-length of Johan can be dated to around 1628/9 [Lichtenstein Collection]. He later painted Johan with his family in 1634.
1 ‘Van Dyck, a Complete Catalogue of the Paintings’, London 2004, p240.
2 ‘Van Dyck Drawings, London 1991, p242.