This portrait of an unidentified man, depicted in an interior with a landscape seen through the open window at the left, ultimately derives from a composition developed by early Netherlandish masters, namely Dieric Bouts in his 1462 Portrait of a Man (National Gallery, London). Dated 1491, it advances the formula by capturing the self-assured demeanor of the sitter, who directly addresses the viewer with a sidelong glance. The painting has been assigned to various regional German schools, but its closest analogy is found in the early portraits of Dürer, who was active in Nuremberg.
This portrait of a man ultimately derives from a composition developed by Dieric Bouts in his 1462 Portrait of a Man in the National Gallery, London (NG943). The formula initially circulated through drawings and painted versions in Middle Rhenish and Cologne School workshops before being adopted in the 1470s in the Upper Rhine region. Seen in a half-length pose and three-quarter profile, the sitter is simply dressed as a middle-class burgher in the style of the late fifteenth century. The identity of the man is unknown, but he appears again in a copy of this painting, probably from the early sixteenth century, with a neutral background and lacking the inscription and the sitter’s hands, that sold at auction in 1930.
Dated 1491, this painting represents an advance in the development of contemporary South German portraiture, as seen, for instance, in Michael Wolgemut’s Levinus Memminger of about 1485 (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid). Max Henkel (1923) pointed out, and Max J. Friedlander concurred, that the Museum’s portrait is impressive for its "lack of gothic rigidity and timidity" at such an early date. As such, it even anticipates Albrecht Dürer, whose self-portraits of 1493 and 1498 (Musee du Louvre, Paris, and Museo del Prado, Madrid) popularized the new mode of showing a casually posed figure with self-assured demeanor who turns his attention to gaze toward the viewer.
The letters H.H. at the top of the painting are an addition and may have been added in the early sixteenth century to suggest an attribution to Hans Holbein the Elder. Previous scholarship has rightly located the portrait in southern Germany, among painters from the Middle or Upper Rhine or Franconia. As early as 1924, just after the painting was acquired by the Museum, Harry Wehle suggested a connection to Nuremberg and proposed as the artist the one responsible for the "four best scenes" of the 1487 Peringsdörffer Altarpiece, now called the Saint Augustine Altarpiece (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg). This altarpiece is now considered to have been mainly the work of Hans Traut. But while the strongly individualized heads in some of its panels bear a general similarity to the sitter’s head in the Metropolitan’s portrait, Peter Strieder’s more in-depth study of the altarpiece in 1993 has revealed characteristics that do not match those of this master.
Further connecting the present work to Nuremberg is its close relationship in style and execution to the Portrait of a Young Man (Städel Museum, Frankfurt), formerly identified as Friedrich the Wise of Saxony, painted around 1490 by a master in that city. Both figures are placed in the corner of a room beside a double-framed window with a view to a river with bordering fortresses. Renewed attention to German portraiture through recent exhibitions and collection catalogues has more clearly defined the Nuremberg masters. Among them is Jacob Elsner, a painter and illuminator who began his training in the Upper Rhine, near Konstanz, and settled in Nuremberg, apparently establishing his reputation as a portrait painter by 1490. His Posthumous Portrait of Kanzler Heinrich Schilther (Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna) of about 1495 bears a close resemblance to the MMA portrait—most specifically in the treatment of the boldly articulated physiognomy. Although Elsner is a plausible attribution for the Museum’s portrait, further study is necessary to confirm this suggestion. In the meantime, an attribution to a Nuremberg painter is the most reliable.
[2013; adapted from Ainsworth 2013]
The panel support is made of three boards of linden, with the grain oriented vertically. On the reverse there are routed tracks 1 centimeter wide along the top and bottom. The panel has been cradled. In 1936 the panel and cradle were thickly coated with wax.
Unpainted borders and a barbe around the perimeter indicate that the panel was in an engaged frame when the white ground preparation was applied. Vertical inscribed lines appear at the left along the perimeter of the painted area in the landscape, at the middle right along the perimeter, and along the bottom beneath the left hand. The preparatory layer, applied with large, sweeping brushstrokes, is visible along the top of the panel in raking light as broad horizontal stokes passing underneath the brown, cream, and blue passages. Along the entire perimeter, just outside the barbe, there is an opaque orange-red paint that extends slightly below the painted design. This paint contains minium and lead white. The color may be a fragment of the original decoration of the frame, and the location confirms that it was applied before the portrait was painted. Diagonal gouges in all four corners that extend into the paint film may be damage inflicted when the original frame was removed.
In the inscription, the paint used for the date has a different consistency and a slightly more yellow color than that used for the initials, which are likely a later addition.
Infrared reflectography (see Additional Images, fig. 1) revealed minimal underdrawing marked by an irregular line that suggests the use of a brush. The underdrawing includes the contour of the face, placed slightly to the left of the painted contour; outlines of the hands; and horizontal striations describing the decoration of the shirt that differ significantly in position from the painted lines.
The thinly applied paint has been abraded and extensively restored, particularly in the modeling and shadows of the flesh. Natural aging has contributed to an increased transparency of the paint film, which is most apparent in the shirt, where the underdrawing is now visible. The flesh and the areas painted with brown have also become more transparent.
In the view out the window, the ripples in the reflections of the buildings in the water were created by dragging a brush horizontally through the wet paint.
Federico Frizzoni-Salis, Villa Frizzoni, Bellagio (in 1862; inv., n.d., no. 24); Léonardus Nardus, Suresnes; Onnes van Nijenrode, Nijenrode Castle, Breukelen (until 1923; his sale, Frederik Müller, Amsterdam, July 10, 1923, no. 13, as by a South German painter, for fl. 36,000); [Kleinberger, New York, 1923; sold to MMA]
New York. Durlacher Brothers. "German Painting of the Fifteenth Century," March 10–29, 1947, no. 12 (as by the Master of the Augustine Altarpiece).
Charles Lock Eastlake. Notebook entry. September 1, 1862, vol. 1, fol. 10r [National Gallery Archive, London, NG 22/30: 1862 (I); published in Walpole Society 73 (2011), vol. 1, p. 596], records seeing it at the Villa Frizzoni, Bellagio; describes it and reproduces the inscription, wondering whether the initials refer to Hans Holbein.
Giovanni Morelli. Elenco dei Quadri componenti la Galleria del Signor Federico Frizzoni. n.d., no. 24 [private collection, Bergamo; published in Jaynie Anderson, "Frizzoneria in Bergamo," in Ex Fumo Lucem: Baroque Studies in Honour of Klára Garas, Budapest, 1999], as "Ritratto d'uomo" by Scuola Tedesca, with the observation "Holbein d. J. Coll a cifra H. H. 1493" [sic].
M. D. Henkel. "Versteigerung der Sammlung Schloß Nyenrode." Kunstchronik und Kunstmarkt no. 37/38 (June 15–22, 1923), p. 687, calls it an upper German work; relates it to a portrait of a girl in the Speck von Sternburg collection.
Primitifs néerlandais et maîtres des XVIe et XVIIe siècles: Collection du château de Nijenrode. Frederik Muller, Amsterdam. July 10, 1923, p. 7, no. 13, ill., records Friedländer's opinion that it is a South German work, probably by a Franconian painter.
Max J. Friedländer. Letter to Harry B. Wehle. January 15, 1924, calls it certainly south German, but very advanced for 1491, perhaps indicating contact with Venice; rejects the initials, suggesting that they were added later as a false Holbein signature.
August L. Mayer. Letter to Harry B. Wehle. January 21, 1924, considers it by a painter from the region near Frankfurt am Main, or even from the middle Rhine, but not from Nuremberg.
H[arry]. B. W[ehle]. "A German Portrait of 1491." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 19 (March 1924), pp. 61–63, ill., calls the inscribed date genuine, and states that the initials seem to date from about the same time; believes the picture is probably by a Nuremberg painter, and suggests "the unidentified artist . . . who painted the four best scenes of the Peringsdörffer altar now in the Germanic Museum, Nuremberg".
"Dans les galeries d'Amérique." Bulletin de l'art no. 704 (January 1924), pp. 136–37, ill., calls it certainly South German; thinks that it seems slightly later than its date of 1491; accepts Wehle's [see Ref. 1924] attribution.
Friedrich Winkler. Letter to Harry B. Wehle. February 3, 1930, acknowledges, after seeing a photograph of this painting, that it appears superior to the version in the upcoming Vieweg sale, but prefers to withhold judgment as he has not seen the actual painting itself.
Sammlung Vieweg Braunschweig. Rudolph Lepke's Kunst-Auctions-Haus, Berlin. March 18, 1930, p. 44, under no. 35, mentions it in the entry for another version of the composition attributed to a South German painter and dated about 1500; believes the two works are by the same painter; calls the Vieweg picture close to the young Dürer, noting that the MMA work had been incorrectly attributed to the Master of the Benedict Series in Darmstadt, sometimes identified with the young Dürer.
F[riedrich]. Winkler. "Die Sammlung Vieweg: I. Gemälde." Pantheon 5 (January–June 1930), p. 79, notes that in the Vieweg catalogue the MMA and Vieweg pictures are attributed to the same painter.
Bryson Burroughs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Catalogue of Paintings. 9th ed. New York, 1931, p. 234, ill. opp. 241, attributes it to Master H. H., "an unknown South German master, probably Franconian".
Hans Tietze. Meisterwerke europäischer Malerei in Amerika. Vienna, 1935, p. 338, pl. 199 [English ed., "Masterpieces of European Painting in America," New York, 1939, p. 322, pl. 199], as South German school on p. 338, and as Franconian school in the plate caption.
Charles L. Kuhn. A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1936, p. 53, no. 194, pl. XXXVI, includes it among works of the Franconian school and states that it is probably by a Nuremberg painter; believes that the initials are a later addition, perhaps from the mid-sixteenth century; calls the Vieweg version a replica.
Erwin Panofsky. Letter to Margaretta Salinger. December 1, 1940, calls it "probably Upper-Rhenish or possibly Swiss"; thinks the initials are a well-intentioned addition of the later sixteenth century.
Juan Zocchi. Grünewald: Vida y arte paralelos espirituales. Buenos Aires, 1944, pl. 16, includes it among works by Grünewald.
Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 174–75, ill., attribute it to the Master of the Augustine Altarpiece; see the influence of Flemish painting, especially a portrait by Bouts of 1462 (National Gallery, London); state that the Vieweg picture is by a different artist.
Millia Davenport. The Book of Costume. New York, 1948, vol. 1, p. 340, no. 891, ill. (cropped).
Ernst Buchner. Das Deutsche Bildnis der Spätgotik und der Frühen Dürerzeit. Berlin, 1953, pp. 133–34, 210, no. 148, pl. 148, sees no direct connection with the Master of the Augustine Altarpiece, proposing instead an attribution to the Master of the Darmstadt Passion and Legend Scenes (Master of the Legend of Saint Dominic), who he thinks was active in Strasbourg, suggesting a comparison of the MMA painting with a fragment of the Darmstadt Crucifixion in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich; calls the Vieweg portrait a simplified repetition by a different hand.
Alfred Stange. Deutsche Malerei der Gotik. Vol. 7, Oberrhein, Bodensee, Schweiz und Mittelrhein in der Zeit von 1450 bis 1500. Munich, 1955, p. 27, pl. 49, rejects the attribution to the Master of the Legend of Saint Dominic [see Ref. Buchner 1953], assigning this work and three others to the Master of the Benda Madonna (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).
Alfred Stange. Kritisches Verzeichnis der deutschen Tafelbilder vor Dürer. Ed. Norbert Lieb. Vol. 2, Oberrhein, Bodensee, Schweiz, Mittelrhein, Ulm, Augsburg, Allgäu, Nördlingen, von der Donau zum Neckar. Munich, 1970, pp. 44–45, no. 133.
Albrecht Dürer, 1471–1971. Exh. cat., Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. Munich, 1971, pp. 99–100, no. 167, ill. p. 102, attributes it to an Upper Rhenish painter, seeing similarities to the Master of the Augustine Altarpiece and adding that the connection with the Master of the Legend of Saint Dominic must still be clarified.
Geerd Westrum. Altdeutsche Malerei. Munich, 1979, pp. 61–62, ill., attributes it to the Master of the Augustine Altarpiece.
Maryan W. Ainsworth inGerman Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 251–53, 321–22, no. 58, ill. (color).