Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Portrait of a Monk in Prayer

French Painter (ca. 1500)
Oil on wood
Overall 13 1/4 x 9 1/2 in. (33.7 x 24.1 cm); painted surface 13 1/8 x 9 1/2 in. (33.3 x 24.1 cm)
Credit Line:
Fletcher Fund, 1937
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 644
This unidentified sitter wears the black habit of a Benedictine monk, and probably formed the left wing of a diptych or triptych. The portrait combines a mix of artistic influences and can be compared to both Flemish and French portraits. The attention to details, like the stubble of his beard, relates to Flemish portraits, while the lighting is more dramatic and emphasizes the sculptural quality of the head and hands. A similar blue background can be seen in Clouet’s later portrait of Guillaume Budé (46.68).
This unidentified sitter wears the black habit and prominent tonsure of a Benedictine monk. His three-quarter pose, turned to his left with his hands folded in prayer, suggests that the painting originally was part of a diptych, as Wehle (1938) proposed. Although the right-hand or dexter position would have traditionally been reserved for the sacred pendant, due to its higher status, the inversion of this heraldic pattern is closely linked to the Tour portrait tradition originating with Jean Fouquet, the preeminent French painter of the fifteenth century. Both the Melun Diptych (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, and Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp) and the Portrait of Jean Jouvenel des Ursins (Musée du Louvre, Paris) with its lost pendant establish this otherwise unusual pairing, placing the supplicant on the favored side.

The sitter’s physiognomy is distinctively modeled with varied brownish tones that create a dramatic chiaroscuro. The portrait shows a unique combination of naturalistic portrayal and novel experiments with light that create highly sculptural effects. Although the sculptural quality of the modeling has been associated both with the Master of Moulins, a Flemish-trained painter active in the Bourbonnais in the last decade of the fifteenth century (see Valentiner 1938), and with Michel Sittow, the Flemish-trained court portraitist of Isabella of Castile, it seems more convincing to consider the Master of Saint Giles, who was active around 1500 in the Netherlands and in France. This artist, tentatively identified as Wouter van Campen by Guy-Michel Leproux (see Guy-Michel Leproux, La peinture à Paris sous le règne de François Ier, Paris, 2001), is named after his eponymous work, four panels of an altarpiece made for the Parisian church of Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles around 1500 (today in the National Gallery, London, and National Gallery of Art, Washington). However, although the approach to comparable dramatic lighting effects in the sitter’s physiognomy is generally related, the Master of Saint Giles distinguishes himself by the use of a rather warm orange palette for skin tones and a more graphic approach to the depiction of individual traits than is found in the Museum’s portrait.

The strong tonal contrast of the far side of the face, largely modelled in brown, seems to relate the Portrait of a Monk to technical characteristics already found in Jean Fouquet’s works. Although his portraits are characterized by a pronounced linear character, both the Jouvenel portrait in the Louvre and also the Saint Stephen in the Berlin Portrait of Etienne Chevalier are modelled with large areas of warm brownish shadows on the averted side of the face. Also the Pietà of Nouans and, to a lesser extent, the diptych of the Blessing Christ and the Virgin in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours, attributed to a follower of Fouquet, are characterized by strong chiaroscuro effects. This handling of paint could be compared to the stytle of Fouquet’s closest follower, the Master of the Munich Boccaccio, who is thought to be one of Fouquet’s sons (this was proposed by Avril in Jean Fouquet, Peintre et enlumineur du XVe siècle, Paris, 2003, pp. 18–28). Although scholars do not agree on his possible activity as a panel painter, the basic characterization of his style moves towards a more heavy-handed brushwork but intense and luminous coloring. The Museum's portrait of a monk thus seems to join features associated with the Master of Saint Giles and the Tour School around the Master of the Munich Boccaccio. It would thus be a rare example of the contact between the leading Loire center and the French capital shortly before 1500 and might represent one facet of the Fouquet portrait tradition before the arrival of Jean Clouet.

[Christine Seidel 2014]
[Jacques Seligmann, Paris and New York, until 1928, as by the Master of Moulins; sold to Rosenfeld]; Ernst Rosenfeld, New York (from 1928–d. 1937); Mrs. Ernst (Florette R.) Rosenfeld, New York (1937; sold to MMA)
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "French Art: 1200–1900," January 4–March 12, 1932, no. 62 (as Attributed to the Master of Moulins, lent by E. Rosenfeld, New York).

New York. M. Knoedler & Co. "Fifteenth Century Portraits," April 15–27, 1935, no. 8 (as by the Master of Moulins, lent by Ernst Rosenfeld).

Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Letter to Germain Seligmann. December 14, 1928, dates this portrait about 1480 and finds it more refined in execution and plastic in modelling than the portraits he knows by the Master of Moulins; considers the latter's work generally more flat and simplified in decorative design than the present picture.

André Dezarrois. "Chroniques: L'art français à Londres." Revue de l'art ancien et moderne 61 (January–May 1932), pp. 80, 83, ill., considers it an excellent portrait, but not from the hand of the Master of Moulins; attributes it to an anonymous artist from the beginning of the 16th century.

Max J. Friedländer. "Die Ausstellung französischer Kunst in London." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 1 (1932), pp. 15–16, excludes it from the oeuvre of the Master of Moulins, noting that its accomplished chiaroscuro differs from flowerlike local coloring of his works.

Royal Academy of Arts. Commemorative Catalogue of the Exhibition of French Art, 1200–1900. London, 1933, p. 10, no. 30, pl. 9, list it with the works of the Master of Moulins, but note that "the attribution, originally made by Max Friedländer, is now disputed by some critics, among others by Hulin de Loo, who sees in the picture the hand of a Flemish master; while the authorities of the Department of Painting in the Louvre continue to maintain its French origin".

Georges Hulin de Loo. Bulletin de la classe des beaux arts (L'Académie Royale de Belgique) 15 (1933), p. 69 [see Ref. Sterling 1955], opposes the attribution to the Master of Moulins and considers it a Flemish work, stronger than the paintings by Master Michiel.

Hans Tietze. Meisterwerke europäischer Malerei in Amerika. Vienna, 1935, p. 342, pl. 248 [English ed., "Masterpieces of European Painting in America," New York, 1939, p. 326, pl. 248], dates it about 1500.

Ludwig von Baldass. "The Portraiture of Master Michiel." Burlington Magazine 67 (August 1935), p. 78, pl. 1C, finds "the full, round, plastic modelling . . . especially characteristic of Master Michiel [Michel Sittow] and compares the delineation of the features to that of Sittow's Portrait of a Lady in Vienna [Kunsthistorisches Museum, where it is now identified as Catherine of Aragon].

Paul Wescher. "Das französische Bildnis von Karl VII. bis zu Franz I." Pantheon 21 (January–June 1938), p. 8.

Harry B. Wehle. "A XV Century French Portrait." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 33 (February 1938), pp. 44–46, ill. on cover, suggests this panel may have been the left half of a diptych, of which the right side was a picture of the Virgin and Child; notes that it is broader and simpler in execution than Flemish paintings of the period, and the chiaroscuro more pronounced; dates it at least as early as 1480 and rejects an attribution to the Master of Moulins; believes the painter "must have sprung from the art of Dijon and the Rhone Valley, as indicated by his tendency to weighty forms and dark shadows".

Charles Jacques [Charles Sterling]. Les peintres du Moyen Age. Paris, 1941, p. 56 of Répertoire B, no. 10, dates it about 1500 and supports Baldass's [see Ref. 1935] attribution of this portrait to Master Michiel [Michel Sittow].

Martin Weinberger. "Notes on Maître Michiel." Burlington Magazine (September 1948), p. 248, fig. 5, attributes this portrait to Michel Sittow and believes that "the modelling . . . as well as the distribution of the figure on the panel, points to a late date, about 1520, perhaps even later"; claims that it must have been painted in Reval, where one would expect Michel to have found such a sitter.

Maurice H. Goldblatt. "The 'Master of Moulins' Identified—Part II." Connoisseur 122 (September 1948), p. 3, attributes it to "Jean Hay Clouet".

Grete Ring. A Century of French Painting 1400–1500. London, 1949, pp. 239–40, no. 308, ill., as no more by Michel Sittow or the Flemish School, than by the Master of Moulins—would "rather maintain its 'meridional' origin"; compares it with a Saint Anthony by Gregorio Lopez in the Museum of Lisbon, but considers the MMA picture of higher quality.

Charles Sterling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of French Paintings. Vol. 1, XV–XVIII Centuries. Cambridge, Mass., 1955, pp. 9–11, ill., dates it about 1480 and sees it as a work related to the group of Franco-Flemish artists working around the court of Margaret of Austria during the first fifteen years of the 16th century; observes that the style "has affinities with that of Michiel Sittow but is broader in modeling and stronger in chiaroscuro than his known works"; notes that the Department of European Paintings, on the other hand, views this picture as being related to works of the Burgundian school, and would date it fully a generation before 1480; states that the monk wears the black habit of the Benedictine order.

Rain Rebas. "Michel Sittow: Taasavastamine ja looming." Aastaraamat [Year Book of the Institute of Estonian Language and Literature] 1 (1973), pp. 192–93, 209, no. 13, ill., attributes this portrait to Michel Sittow.

Jazeps Trizna. Michel Sittow: Peintre Revalais de l'école Brugeoise (1468–1525/1526) [Les primitifs flamands III. Contributions à l'étude des primitifs flamands 6]. Brussels, 1976, p. 100, observes that with our knowledge of the mature Sittow as a portraitist, it is difficult to imagine that he could have developed to this point, although we cannot exclude the possibility that this work comes from the end of his career.

Katharine Baetjer. "Pleasures and Problems of Early French Painting." Apollo 106 (November 1977), p. 347.

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