Research Bursary report: Portrait of a Lady

I'm delighted to present a report from one of our SSN research bursary recipients, Magdalena Łanuszka, about her research project at York Art Gallery.

Magdalena was awarded the bursary in November 2015 to undertake research into 'Portrait of a Lady' traditionally attributed to Cornelis de Vos. 

The SSN provides bursaries to fund research focusing on pre-1900 European paintings. We advertise the bursary in the autumn every year, but are happy to discuss proposals at any time. Read further on our Bursaries page.  


SSN Research Bursary Project: 'Portrait of a Lady'

Magdalena Łanuszka

As a result of the research completed on the continental pre-1900 oil paintings at York Art Gallery as a part of The National Inventory Research Project (NIRP), I have rejected the traditional attribution of the 'Portrait of a Lady' (YORAG 840). The painting should no longer be attributed to Cornelis de Vos, but initially my research ended up with the general attribution to Flemish School. Further research was necessary to propose a new attribution.

'Portrait of a Lady' © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

'Portrait of a Lady' © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

Receiving the SSN research bursary enabled York Art Gallery to hire me as a freelance researcher, so I could focus on an extended research on the YORAG 840 painting. I have considered various Antwerp painters, but most of them did not match the York portrait stylistically. Further comparison of the York portrait with works by various other Antwerp artists of the period century (including the anonymous works) lead me to the conclusion that the qualities we are looking for are only traceable in the portraits of Jan Cossiers - who, it should be noted, was also a pupil of Cornelis de Vos.

In the course of my recent research I have collected information on Cossiers's life and oeuvre. Jan Cossiers painted both religious and mythological subjects; he was a painter of various styles as his signed paintings show a wide spectrum of influences and follow different stylistic patterns, for example either Rubens-like or Caravaggesque. In fact, his portraits are in many ways different from his mythological or religious paintings, as in the latter he depicted quite standardised, un-individualised figures, while in his portraiture he managed to capture the psychological nuances of the sitters' faces. As a result I decided to consider a potential Cossiers attribution for the York portrait by comparing it only with his other portraits, and not with his paintings in other genres. Unfortunately the portrait oeuvre of Cossiers has not yet been  published in any monograph publication – I needed to search for particular portraits, many of which are in private collections. As a result I also decided to question the attribution of some portraits believed to be by Cossiers and to resign of juxtaposing the York portraits with those, the attribution of which has been questioned or proposed rather tentatively. Finally I have established a group of portraits either by or rather firmly attributed to Cossiers that could be useful to compare with the portrait in York. That group consisted of the signed 'Portrait of a Young Man' in the Detroit Institute of Arts, five drawings of his sons, signed and dated 1658, 'A Portrait of a Man in a Wide-Brimmed Hat' in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and 'A Portrait of a Young Man', which had been on extended loan to the Rubens House Museum (Rubenshuis) in Antwerp from 2007 to 2012 and is now in a private collection. Additionally I have examined also a group of paintings representing men in half-length, smoking, and drinking, which are sometimes interpreted as the allegories of the senses. The group consists of several similar paintings, painted on panels of approximately 64cm by 49cm, they are now in various private collections, but are widely accepted by scholars as attributed to Jan Cossiers.

As a result of the research I have written a scholarly article of almost 50,000 characters (including over 60 footnotes with references), illustrated with over 30 figures. I believe that 'Portrait of a Lady' in York Art Gallery should be attributed to Jan Cossiers. The research on the type of dress of the sitter resulted in dating the portrait to ca. 163545. Additional research on the painting's provenance resulted in establishing the time of acquisition the portrait to the collection of Robert Stayner Holford to between the second half of the 1850s and late 1870s.

The research was completed not only by getting to the relevant literature and the high-quality reproductions of the paintings (as most of them are unavailable being in private collections). It also included correspondence with the curators and specialists of various institutions (e.g. Rubenianum and Rubenshuis, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Worcester Art Museum, Detroit Institute of Arts, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington). I have finally ended up with a conclusion that Jan Cossiers's portraits, at least to a viewer today, may in many cases seem even better than his mythological or religious paintings. Most of Cossiers's portraits were in the past attributed either to Rubens or Van Dyck, which also in itself reflects the very high skills of this artist, who sadly seems to be a bit undervalued today. Hopefully further research will help take him out of the shadows, by defining his oeuvre which still raises many doubts and questions.