The Albany Institute of History & Art is not known for showing works of the old masters.
That might change after Wednesday, when a recently discovered oil sketch by 17th-century Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck goes on exhibit.
The sketch features a weathered man with defined muscles and clear signs of aging, looking down as though studying something. Owned by collector Albert B. Roberts, the work is a 400-year-old study for “Saint Jerome with an Angel.”
“It is rare, indeed, for a work by a major master to come to light. The oil sketch that Mr. Roberts discovered by Anthony Van Dyck is an impressive and important find that helps us understand more about the artist’s method as a young man,” said the Rev. Susan J. Barnes in a statement.
She is a leading scholar on the artist and co-author of “Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings.” She’s also the scholar who helped identify the Van Dyck study, which is in remarkable condition for its age and the journey it’s been on.
At one point during its life, the sketch was attached to a wooden board, and there are clear lines running down the figure that reveal where the wood has cracked. There are plans to restore the work and eventually frame it in a period-appropriate black mahogany frame, but for now it remains as Roberts found it.
“We wanted you to see the work in its pristine condition; its pristine condition happens to include bird droppings on the back,” Roberts said Tuesday afternoon when he addressed an audience of Institute members and his family.
The Hudson Valley resident has been involved with the Institute for decades; he has served on the board, gifted more than 40 works to the Institute and is a longtime friend of Executive Director Tammis Groft. While much of Roberts’ career was spent working for state government (he served as director of the Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Committee on Taxation), he spent much of the past 30 years pursuing his passion, “orphaned” art.
“What’s exciting for me is the chase,” Roberts said. “I’ve devoted the last 30 years of my life to the search for art that I like to call ‘orphaned’ art, that for one reason or another has been neglected, overlooked, perhaps lost in the shuffle of the art world in different countries. Perhaps a painter may be absent-minded and allow work to slip through the cracks. I can give you a hundred scenarios.”
As soon as he found the Van Dyck work in 2002 in the Kinderhook region, Roberts recognized that it was Dutch or Flemish and most likely from the 17th century. Realizing he might have something both historically and artistically significant on his hands, he headed to the Clark Museum library to research Van Dyck, one of the most famous painters of his time.
Born in 1599, the Flemish artist became known for his portraits of aristocrats, as well as mythological and religious scenes.
“In the last decade of Van Dyck’s short life, he became the most prolific, gifted and influential court portraitist in the history of Western art, and I say that with confidence. His paintings were in royal collections all over the European continent and they were models for other court painters. Many of these paintings ended up in American collections,” Barnes said.
Today, his paintings are part of museum collections around the globe, including the Louvre Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection and in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
The latter museum has “Saint Jerome with an Angel” in its collection, though the Institute has placed a print of the work with the sketch for comparison.
Looking at the sketch and the finished work, their relationship is obvious. In the sketch, there are broad brush strokes depicting the breast and some smaller ones along the forehead.
“He was making notes to himself. This wasn’t a finished painting. What he was really interested in was what an old man’s flesh looks like in view of making this painting of Saint Jerome,” Barnes said.
In the finished work, Saint Jerome is looking studiously down at a sprawling scroll as he works to translate the Bible. The brushstrokes aren’t hurried as he plays with light and shadow.
It was Van Dyck’s second attempt to portray the saint. His first, which he painted when he was about 15 years old, was impressive but not anatomically correct. Van Dyck went about trying to make his next portrait of the saint better by studying from a live model.
According to Barnes, the piece is one of only two known studies of a live model by Van Dyck, making it seem even more incredible that, for years, it was just propped up against the wall in Roberts’ home.
When he began researching the sketch in the early 2000s, Roberts hypothesized that it was by Van Dyck.
“But then, looking at my records, I did nothing about it then. I essentially had the answer, [but] what’s exciting for me is the chase, and once I’m satisfied who it’s by I turn to other work,” Roberts said.
His niece, Debbi Calton-Roberts, can attest to that.
“Often what happens is he’ll read an article or see something that maybe went through Christie’s or Sotheby’s, and he’ll say ‘I remember that painting.’ Something will spark his interest and he’ll say, ‘Let me go back and look at that,’ ” Calton-Roberts said.
In this case, Roberts eventually read a blog post by art historian and dealer Bendor Grosvenor. He reached out to Grosvenor about the sketch and the art historian asked to see some high-quality photos of the work.
“I’m embarrassed to tell you that seven years later I followed up,” Roberts said.
From there, Grosvenor connected him with an academic who further supported Roberts’ theory that the sketch was indeed by Van Dyck.
While the whole narrative sounds a bit like an urban legend — something Roberts just stumbled into — the collector is the first to say that’s not the case at all.
“I didn’t stumble on the find. . . . In my search, I’ve developed a method for examining works of art to seek attribution, a sophisticated if highly unorthodox method that I’ve described in detail in a book I’ve just written. Without divulging what is in the book, I would only say that it feels richly rewarding to have the search turn out so well in this instance,” Roberts said.
“Study for ‘Saint Jerome with an Angel’ ” will be on exhibit in the Christine & George R. Hearst III Gallery until Sunday, Oct. 6.
For more information, visit albanyinstitute.org.