Monday, March 19, 2012

Hans Memling’s “Portrait of a Man”

Hans Memling (Netherlandish, c. 1430–1494) ‘Portrait of a Man,’ c. 1470–75 Oil on oak panel 13-1/8 x 9-1/8 in. (33.5 x 23.2 cm) The Frick Collection, New York Photo: Michael Bodycomb

Memling’s “Portrait of a Man” is a tour de force of early Netherlandish painting—remarkable in its truthfulness and humanity, and in an extraordinary state of conservation that allows the viewer to see practically every brushstroke. The identity of this sympathetic sitter, who holds the cornette or strap of his hat in his right hand, still remains to be discovered. Might the tiny steeple in the far left background and the impressive tower in the landscape at right offer some clue to his origins? Despite our best efforts, this is a work that has yet to reveal all its secrets.”

About Hans Memling Hans

Memling’s brilliance as one of the most formative early Netherlandish painters is clearly evident in The Frick Collection’s generous loan of their “Portrait of a Man.” The remarkable quantity of Memling’s existing portraits—in all about 50 of the 100 or so panels that have been attributed to his hand or his workshop—testify to the artist’s popularity and renown in his own lifetime. All of these portraits were probably painted after his arrival in Bruges, in modern-day Belgium, in 1465 from his German birthplace in Seligenstadt. They demonstrate his awareness of a long line of his counterparts such as Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus and Gerard David, but above all they reveal his indebtedness to Rogier van der Weyden, with whom he assuredly trained in Brussels after his arrival in Flanders from the middle Rhine. After Rogier’s death in 1464, Memling made his way to the thriving city of Bruges, where he would buy his citizenship, marry and have three children, and paint for the remainder of his life. In the stable economic and political climate of the 1460s and 1470s, Bruges was a flourishing center of commerce, and the city was filled with ranks of successful locals and foreigners alike. The Frick’s portrait, dated to ca. 1470–75, is likely a record of one of these prosperous bankers or merchants that were anxious to have their likenesses immortalized by Memling, who had already achieved wide fame and fruitful private commissions in his adoptive city. Given the panel’s Northern Italian provenance, it has been suggested that the sitter was from Italy or a northern locale, but the identity of this dark-eyed, determined individual remains unknown.

Other portraits by Memling reveal clues to the identity of his sitters: some hold attributes such as a letter, coin or ring, and in a few cases their ages or names are inscribed. Here, however, the Frick’s anonymous sitter grasps the strap of his hat and gazes confidently at the object of his attention from inside his fictive frame. The landscape holds no distinct hints of his origin either, although scholars have commented on the fascination of Italian clients for northern landscape painting and their willingness to pay a higher price to have such a background painted for their own portraits. While Memling was not the -morefirst northerner to place his figures, both sacred and profane, in an outdoor setting, the export of his paintings to other countries, especially Italy, would create an indelible mark on portrait painting from that point forward.

Works such as “Portrait of a Man” would be admired and emulated by Italian artists who were seminal in their own right: Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci would all paint signature works that suggest their familiarity with Memling’s common patterns and unique positioning of his figures in lush landscapes.