According to legend, Martin of Tour was a soldier in the army of Constantine the Great serving in Gaul, near the French city of Amiens, in the fourth century. On a winter's day Martin encountered a poor beggar at the city gates and cut his military cloak in half to help shield the shivering man from the cold. The night after his act of charity, Martin had a vision that Christ came to him wearing the part of the cloak he had given to the beggar, saying: "What thou hast done for that poor man, thou hast done for me." Martin, who had converted to Christianity as a child but who had entered military service at his father's behest, then left the military to devote his life to the Christian faith.
This oil sketch, which depicts the moment of Martin divided his cloak, was long believed to be executed by Anthony van Dyck around 1620 to 1621. The artist treated the subject in large scale twice over the course of his career—once for the parish church of Saint Martin in Zaventem and once for his friend Peter Paul Rubens. However, examination of the panel and the panel maker's mark indicate that the panel would not have been available for the painting prior to the late 1630s. The sketch also cannot be attributed to a later stage of Van Dyck's career, owing to certain dissimilarities with the master's work, such as the scratching technique used to indicate the decorative pattern on Saint Martin's armor—a method Van Dyck never used.
However, the Gallery's panel does exhibit certain similarities to an oil sketch by the Antwerp painter Jan Boeckhorst. Boeckhorst, who was enormously influenced by Van Dyck's style and may have known his compositions of the subject. The subject of the painting would seem also to have appealed to Boeckhorst, whose family had extremely close ties to the Church of Saint Martin in his native city of Münster. It is possible he painted this sketch in anticipation of a commission for that church that was never realized.
Baron de Willebroek [d. 1783], Brussels; (his sale, Brussels, 25 June 1781, no. 15). Possibly De Castelmore, Paris; (his sale, Paillet/Boileau, Paris, 20 December 1791 and following days, no. 47, as by Van Dyck); purchased by Paillet for François-Pascal Haudry [1718-1800], Orléans; (his private contract sale, August 1800, no. 101, as by Van Dyck). Cardinal Joseph Fesch [1763-1839], Rome; his estate; sold 1844 to William Buchanan [1777-1846], London; sold 1845 to Robert Stayner Holford [1808-1892], Dorchester House, London; by inheritance to his son, Sir George Lindsay Holford, K.C.V.O. [1860-1926], Dorchester House, London; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 17-18 May 1928, no. 65); (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); sold 1928 to Andrew W. Mellon [1855-1937], Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; by inheritance to his daughter, Ailsa Mellon Bruce [1901-1969], Long Island, New York; bequest 1970 to NGA.
- Pictures by Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, French and English Masters, British Institution, London, 1848, no. 9.
- Exhibition of the Works of Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1887, no. 134, as by Van Dyck.
- Van Dijck Tentoonstelling, Museum van Schoone Kunsten, Antwerp, 1899, no. 29, as by Van Dyck.
- Exhibition of Works by Van Dyck 1599-1641. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1900, no. 22, as by Van Dyck.
- A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 20, as possibly by Jan Boeckhorst.
- Catalogue de tableaux, vendus à Bruxelles, depuis l'année 1773.... Brussels, n.d. [1803?]: 91, no. 15, as by Van Dyck.
- Smith, John. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. 9 vols. London, 1829-1842: 3(1831):13, as by Van Dyck.
- Camuccini, Vincent. Catalogue des Tableaux composant la Galerie de feu son Eminence le Cardinal Fesch. Rome, 1841: 18, no. 351, as in the style of Rubens.
- George, Louis-George. Galerie de feu S. E. le Cardinal Fesch. Rome, 1844: 53, no. 68, as by Van Dyck.
- Mariette, P.J. Abecedario de P.J. Mariette et autres notes inédites de cet amateur sur les arts et les artistes. 6 vols. Paris, 1851-1860: 2(1853-1854):191, as by Van Dyck (reprint Paris, 1966).
- Waagen, Gustav Friedrich. Treasures of Art in Great Britain: Being an Account of the Chief Collections of Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, Illuminated Mss.. 3 vols. Translated by Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake. London, 1854: 2:200, as by Van Dyck.
- Guiffrey, Jules. Antoine van Dyck - sa vie et son oeuvre. Paris, 1882: 251, no. 203, as by Van Dyck.
- Hymans, Henri. "Correspondance de Belgique." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 35 (1887): 356, as by Van Dyck.
- Phillips, Claude. "Correspondance d'Angleterre. Expositions rétrospectives de la Royal Academy et de la Grosvenor Gallery." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 35 (1887): 261, as by Van Dyck.
- Law, Ernest. Van Dyck's Pictures at Windsor Castle. London, 1899: 93, 96.
- Cust, Lionel. Anthony van Dyck - An Historical Study of His Life and Works. London, 1900: 32, 33, 239, nos. 38, 205, nos. 134, 210, nos. 29, 218, no. 22, as by Van Dyck.
- Rooses, Max. Fifty Masterpieces of Anthony van Dyck. London, 1900: 96, as by Van Dyck.
- Benson, Robert H. The Holford Collection, Dorchester House. 2 vols. London, 1927: 2:20, no. 125, pl. 113, as by Van Dyck.
- Glück, Gustav. Van Dyck: des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 13. Revised 2nd ed. New York and Stuttgart, 1931: 26, 520, nos. 24-26, repro., as by Van Dyck.
- Puyvelde, Leo van. "Van Dyck's St. Martin at Windsor and at Saventhem." The Burlington Magazine 77 (August 1940): 42, as by Van Dyck.
- Hughes, Bernard G. "Sir Anthony van Dyck." Apollo 34 (December 1941): 152, repro., as by Van Dyck.
- Millar, Oliver. Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the Royal Collection. London, 1963: 104, as by Van Dyck (? "sketch of a variant").
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 122, repro., as by Van Dcyk.
- Stewart, J. Douglas. "'Van Dyck as Religious Artist' at The Art Museum, Princeton University." The Burlington Magazine (July 1979): 467, doubts attribution to Van Dyck.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 148, repro., as by Van Dyck.
- Larsen, Erik. The Paintings of Anthony van Dyck. 2 vols. Freren, 1988: 1:159, 160; 2:102, no. 237, repro., as by Van Dyck.
- Jaffé, Michael. "Exhibition Reviews: Van Dyck at the National Gallery of Art." The Burlington Magazine 133 (February 1991): 144, as by Diepenbeeck.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Flemish Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2005: 5-9, color repro.