Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Portrait of an Old Man

Hans Memling (Netherlandish, Seligenstadt, active by 1465–died 1494 Bruges)
ca. 1475
Oil on wood
Overall 10 3/8 x 7 5/8 in. (26.4 x 19.4 cm); painted surface 10 x 7 1/4 in. (25.4 x 18.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 644
This sympathetic portrayal of an elderly man once formed a diptych with a portrait of an old woman (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). Unlike the devotional portraits of Tommaso and Maria Portinari displayed nearby, the purpose here is entirely secular. Memling depicts his sitter with hands folded and resting gently on a ledge, not joined in prayer. This portrait and its pendant were created to preserve the appearances of the sitters as they neared the end of their lives, a function of portraiture that became increasingly popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The Artist: For a biography of Hans Memling, see the Catalogue Entry for The Annunciation (17.190.7).

The Painting and its Function: Hans Memling was the most highly accomplished and sought-after portrait painter in Bruges from the time he settled there in 1465 until his death in 1494. Among his great masterpieces at The Met are the Portraits of Tommaso and Maria Portinari (14.40.626–27), painted about 1470 at the time this representative of the Medici bank and his young wife were married. The portraits recognized the sitters’ piety, but also signaled the social status of this upwardly mobile couple, who were well connected to the ducal court. Of a quite different nature is Memling’s touching Portrait of an Old Man. While not unique in Memling’s oeuvre, such portrayals of elderly sitters are not common. The artist communicated the individuality and quiet dignity of this unknown man through meticulous attention to wrinkles, wayward curls of hair, and even salt-and-pepper stubble. As the old man gazes out contemplatively from the shallow space, his body seems to lean toward the viewer. The placement of the hands on the painting’s edge—as if perched on a window sill—is a convention pioneered by earlier painters including Memling’s teacher, Rogier van der Weyden (see The Met, 32.100.43).

Originally, this small painting formed a pair with the Portrait of an Old Woman, also by Memling, now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (see Additional Images, fig. 1). Schrader first made the connection, noting the comparable dimensions of the panels.[1] X-radiography evidence furthermore reveals that the woman once had folded hands at the lower left of her painting, now overpainted, corresponding to those of her husband at the lower right of his panel (see Additional Images, fig. 2).

This secular portrait pair captured the couple at the end of their lives for posterity. Memling painted another Portrait of an Elderly Couple (ca. 1470–72), a double portrait with landscape view that was once a single panel (now split between Gemäldegalerie, Berlin and Musée du Louvre, Paris). De Vos posited that the Portrait of an Old Man and the Houston Portrait of an Old Woman were also painted on one panel.[2] Technical examination, however, does not support this conclusion: neither panel bears a trace of the other’s composition; both panels have a vertical wood grain, consistent with their current orientation; and the Portrait of an Old Man has a barbe, or original painted edge, on the right side of the painting, eliminating the possibility that the painted surface of the panel continued any farther to the right.

Although the Portrait of an Old Man has been trimmed on its other three sides, its tight editing appears intentional. The Old Woman seems to have been downsized in a similar manner—perhaps they were cut to fit new frames. Clues to the couple’s identity, or to how the paintings were originally displayed thus have been lost with the original frames. There is no way of knowing whether the panels were ever hinged in a diptych format, as was the case for some early Netherlandish portrait pairs. This includes the North Netherlandish diptych of the Count and Countess of Egmond (The Met, 32.100.118, 122), which was probably painted after the count’s death, as the much-younger countess is depicted in mourning attire.

The Attribution and Date: The Portrait of an Old Man was shown at the ground-breaking 1902 exhibition of "Flemish Primitives" in Bruges as a work by Jan van Eyck.[3] The Bruges exhibition was an opportunity for scholars to reattribute the work to Memling.[4] Since then the attribution to Memling has not been disputed.[5]

Although there is now agreement on the attribution of The Met’s Portrait of an Old Man to Memling, the question of its date has varied, due in part to the state of preservation of the picture. The background of the portrait is heavily retouched, and the old man’s face is abraded, diminishing the effect of Memling’s subtle glazes. Looser strokes of brown and bright pink create the well-preserved hands. While the treatment of the face shows the hallmarks of fully blended brushwork of Memling’s early portraits, the hands point to the rapid wet-in-wet technique of Memling’s later portraits.[6] A variety of creation dates thus has been proposed, from as early as the 1460s (Bauman 1986), to the early 1470s (Lane 2009) or about 1475 (Ainsworth 2005), to 1475–80 (Borchert 2005), and as late as 1480–90 (De Vos 1994; Sprinson de Jésus 1998, and Campbell 2005).

Further clarification of the date may be found in Memling’s working procedures. The infrared reflectogram of the Old Man (see Additional Images, fig. 3) reveals minimal underdrawing in a liquid medium, as is often the case for Memling’s portraits. The underdrawing that is present (for example, establishing the placement of the head, hands and right ear) is loose and even random, speaking to Memling’s confidence and verve as a portrait painter. The x-radiograph of the painting (see Additional Images, fig. 4), which shows the distribution of lead white pigment, indicates Memling’s early approach of reserving the use of lead white to build the structure of the face through strategically placed highlights, yet the application of the lead white itself is less tightly controlled than in the earliest portraits.[7] The Portrait of an Old Man likely marks a transitional moment in Memling’s portrait painting technique, about 1475. This is likewise supported by the short-cut hair style of the man and his buttoned-up, fur-trimmed coat. Although The Met’s portrait has been thinned and marouflaged and therefore could not be dated by dendrochronology, the current dating of about 1475 is not ruled out by the dendrochronology of the related Houston panel.[8]

A painted copy of the Portrait of an Old Man (Dorotheum 2011; see Additional Images, fig. 5) has a nineteenth- or early twentieth-century appearance, and bears a strong resemblance to the output of Joseph van der Veken (1872–1964), a Belgian restorer of early Netherlandish paintings who was also a prolific producer of copies and pastiches. Indeed, Van der Veken made a careful drawing of the Portrait of an Old Man that remained with his workshop paraphernalia at his death (see Additional Images, fig. 6).[9]

[Anna-Claire Stinebring and Maryan W. Ainsworth 2016]

[1] See Schrader 1970.
[2] See De Vos 1994, p. 230.
[3] See Weale 1902.
[4] See Hulin de Loo 1902 and Friedländer 1903.
[5] For a review of this question, see De Vos 1994, p. 230, and Lane 2009, pp. 296–97.
[6] See Ainsworth 2005.
[7] See Ainsworth 2005.
[8] According to Peter Klein, the last growth ring for the panel of the Houston painting is from the year 1461. With a minimum of nine sapwood rings, this means an earliest felling date of 1470. With a minimum of two years for seasoning time, the earliest possible origin for the painting is 1472. Peter Klein email to Maryan Ainsworth, August 2, 2004 (in European Paintings archive files).
[9] See Verougstraete et al. 2004.
Support: The support is a single plank of wood with the grain oriented vertically. The original support has been thinned and set into an oak plank. This secondary oak support has raised strips that encompass the original and give the appearance of unpainted margins, as would result from an engaged frame. The raised margins obscure the original edges, inhibiting dendrochronological analysis.

This portrait has long been associated with the Portrait of an Old Woman in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (see Additional Images, fig. 1). The female portrait would have hung to the right of the male, offering a picture of the married couple towards the ends of their lives. The two were not painted on the same contiguous plank of wood and later divided, but were painted on two separate panels. The presence of a partial barbe along the right edge of the Portrait of an Old Man indicates that the panel was not cut down on the right side. The other three edges have been slightly trimmed.

Preparation: The panel has been prepared with an off-white ground, containing calcium carbonate. At the barbe a lighter blue-grey priming layer is evident below the darker brownish-blue of the background. This grey layer is only present at the edge: a cross-section taken roughly 1/8 inch (3mm) in from the right edge did not show this lighter underlayer. The presence of this underlayer is likely related to the painting of an engaged frame, before the blue background was applied.

Examination with infrared reflectography revealed a very small amount of underdrawing. There are some cursory lines in the old man’s face, delineating contours, while loose lines to his left and right seem to indicate a rectangle in the background, perhaps something on the wall or a window that was not painted. These lines appear to have been executed with a liquid medium (see Additional Images, fig. 3).

Paint Layers: The painting has suffered some abrasion, particularly in the flesh tones, which could give a misleading impression of Memling’s paint handling in this portrait. When forming the face, Memling began by laying in the paint with a more heavily-loaded brush, yielding strokes that had some texture. This thicker, often wet-in-wet brushwork was then modulated with translucent glazes, resulting in a porcelain-like surface. But where the delicate upper glazes have been broken through, the lower brushstrokes are now evident. In the earlobe, for example, very loose wet-in-wet brushstrokes can be seen, with only traces of a warm brown modulating glaze remaining above. Elsewhere, fine brushstrokes are slightly abraded, as seen in the eyelashes and the stubble of the beard.

Despite the compromised condition, it is still possible to appreciate the subtlety of Memling’s technique. In the rendering of unique details, like the scattering of white and brown hairs in the stubble of the old man’s beard and the slight asymmetry of his face, Memling gives a sense of the carefully observed individual. The whites of eyes are shaded with brown, giving the old man a somewhat weary appearance. In addition to the generally finely-worked and nearly invisible brushwork, there are a small amount of wet-in-wet brushstrokes in the hair, where highlights are dragged through the dark paint to give individual strands added depth. The only change in the painting process was a minor adjustment to the position of the irises. The irises were originally placed slightly lower and in contact with the lower eyelids; both irises were later shifted up, so as to no longer be in contact with the lower lids. Such “floating irises” have been observed in many other portraits by Memling (see Lorne Campbell, “Memling and the Netherlandish Portrait Tradition” in Memling and the Art of Portraiture, ed. Till Holger-Borchert, London, 2005, p. 60). When they were repositioned, white paint was brought over to hide the original position, but now the slight translucency of the white paint gives the illusion of a grey shape below each (see Additional Images, fig. 7). Part of the hand was painted over the dark jerkin of the sitter, beyond the reserve left for it, and so now appears as a pentiment.

The background, now appearing an indeterminate brown-blue, was once a solid dark blue, painted with azurite. The background has been much abraded and is considerably retouched. There is a loss in the sitter’s proper left cheek, visible in the x-radiograph (see Additional Images, fig. 4).

[Sophie Scully 2016]

Wood identification and dendrochronological analysis assessed by Dr. Peter Klein, Universität Hamburg, 1992.

Infrared reflectography completed with a Merlin Indigo InGaAs near infrared camera with a StingRay macro lens customized for the wavelengths covered by the camera, 0.9 to 1.7 microns.

Background analyzed with Raman spectroscopy by Dr. Silvia Centeno, November 2014.
private collection, England (until 1895); [Stephan Bourgeois, Cologne, 1895]; Baron Albert Oppenheim, Cologne (1895–1912; cat., 1904, no. 11; to Kleinberger); [Kleinberger, Paris and New York, 1912–13; sold for $82,000 to Altman]; Benjamin Altman, New York (d. 1913)
Bruges. Palais du Gouvernement. "Exposition des primitifs flamands et d'art ancien," June 15–September 15, 1902, no. 16 (lent by Baron Albert Oppenheim, Cologne).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Dutch Couples: Pair Portraits by Rembrandt and his Contemporaries," January 23–March 5, 1973, no. 1 (with the "Portrait of an Old Woman," E. A. and P. S. Strauss Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 22, 1998–February 21, 1999, no. 29.


E. Firmenich-Richartz. "Die altniederländischen Gemälde der Sammlung des Freiherrn A. v. Oppenheim zu Köln." Zeitschrift für christliche Kunst 9 (1896), cols. 161–64, pl. V, attributes this portrait to Jan van Eyck; observes that the background and the garment of the sitter have been overpainted; notes that the painting came from an English private collection.

Ludwig Kaemmerer. Hubert und Jan van Eyck. Bielefeld, 1898, p. 110, pl. 87, as not by Jan van Eyck, but by an artist of a later period.

Karl Voll. Die Werke des Jan van Eyck. Strasbourg, 1900, p. 122, considers the portrait a pleasant but pedantic work by an artist from the end of the century.

Henri Hymans. "L'exposition des primitifs flamands à Bruges (1er article)." Gazette des beaux-arts, 3rd ser., 28 (August 1902), p. 22, hesitates to accept the attribution to Van Eyck as it appears too free and too late to be his; notes that the piece has exceptional qualities which place it between Dirk Bouts and Memling.

Georges H. de Loo Palais du Gouvernement, Bruges. Exposition de tableaux flamands des XIVe, XVe et XVIe siècles: catalogue critique précédé d'une introduction sur l'identité de certains maîtres anonymes. Ghent, 1902, p. 4, no. 16, lists its as erroneously attributed to Jan van Eyck but closer to Memling and possibly from his hand; notes that the hair style alone is evidence that the portrait is too late for Jan.

W. H. James Weale. Exposition des primitifs flamands et d'art ancien, Bruges. Première section: tableaux. Catalogue. Exh. cat., Palais du Gouvernement. Bruges, 1902, p. 8, no. 16, lists is as a work by Jan van Eyck but notes (p. XXX) that all attribitions given in the catalogue are those indicated by the owners.

W. H. James Weale. "The Early Painters of the Netherlands as Illustrated by the Bruges Exhibition of 1902, Article III." Burlington Magazine 1 (April 1903), p. 51, finds it too late for Jan van Eyck and thinks that its is probably the work of a German painter.

Max J. Friedländer. "Die Brügger Leihausstellung von 1902." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 26 (1903), pp. 80–81, calls it "an especially fine portrait from Memling's early period" and observes that the hands are particularly characteristic of him; notes that the picture is closely related to Memling's "Portrait of an Old Man" in Berlin [now Gemäldegalerie, Berlin]; observes that the picture is not in a good state of preservation.

Émile Molinier. Collection du Baron Albert Oppenheim: Tableaux et objets d'art. Paris, 1904, p. 5, no. 111, pl. 10, catalogues it as a work of Jan van Eyck.

[Hippolyte] Fierens-Gevaert. La peinture en Belgique: Les primitifs flamands. Vol. 2, Brussels, 1909, p. 125, ascribes it to Memling.

Karl Voll. Memling: Des Meisters Gemälde. Stuttgart, 1909, pp. 162, 175, ill., lists it among doubtful works and imitations, but asserts that it was made at the end of the 15th century, perhaps by Memling himself.

Max J. Friedländer. Letter to F. Kleinberger. June 6, 1912, identifies it as an early Memling and compares it with a portrait of an old woman in the Louvre, Paris.

Max J. Friedländer. Letter to F. Kleinberger. November 17, 1912, notes that this portrait, along with two others—Memling's "Portrait of a Young Man with an Arrow" (National Gallery, Washington) and the Dieric Bouts "Portrait of a Man" [MMA 14.40.644]—were acquired by Baron Oppenheim, Cologne, from a private collection in England.

Handbook of the Benjamin Altman Collection. New York, 1914, pp. 74–75, no. 50, ill.

Max J. Friedländer. Von Eyck bis Bruegel: Studien zur Geschichte der Niederländischen Malerei. Berlin, 1916, p. 179.

Max J. Friedländer. "The Altman Memlings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Art in America 4, no. 4 (1916), pp. 188–89, 194, ill., notes that the mildness and restraint of expression are entirely in the spirit of Memling's art, and considers Memling's authorship most plainly visible in the drawing of the hand.

Martin Conway. The Van Eycks and Their Followers. London, 1921, p. 240.

Georges Huisman. Memlinc. Paris, 1923, pp. 107–8, 147, lists it among authentic works which cannot be precisely dated.

Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 3, Dierick Bouts und Joos van Gent. Berlin, 1925, p. 111, contradicts his November 1912 letter to Kleinberger [see Refs.], stating that the three portraits from the collection of Baron Oppenheimer came from a private collection in Russia [rather than England]; notes that the flesh parts are somewhat abraided.

Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 6, Memling und Gerard David. Berlin, 1928, pp. 45, 131, no. 81, dates it about 1470, noting that in comparison, Memling's works of the 1480s and later are characterized by more secure draftsmanship, stronger modeling and more relaxed poses.

Handbook of the Benjamin Altman Collection. 2nd ed. New York, 1928, pp. 42–43, no. 17, ill.

H[ans]. V[ollmer]. in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 24, Leipzig, 1930, p. 376, lists it as a work of about 1470.

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 62–64, ill.

Erik Larsen. Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York. Utrecht, 1960, pp. 35–36, 108, attributes it to a German artist active in Bruges around 1450.

Colin Eisler. "Erik Larsen, Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York, 1960." Art Bulletin 46 (March 1964), p. 100.

Giorgio T. Faggin. L'opera completa di Memling. Milan, 1969, p. 110, ill., as by Memling.

Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, p. 171 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].

Jack L. Schrader. Letter to Richard Friedman. June 19, 1970, suggests that our painting was a companion piece to the "Portrait of an Old Woman" in the Straus Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 6, Hans Memlinc and Gerard David. New York, 1971, part 1, pp. 29, 55, no. 81, pl. 117.

Barbara G. Lane. Hans Memling: Werkverzeichnis. Frankfurt, 1980, pp. 17–18, ill., dates it to about 1470.

Lorne Campbell. Unpublished notes. 1981, calls this portrait "attributed to Memling and in many respects similar to his work"; dates it tentatively to the 1470s; notes that the right hand was at first painted in a different position, foreshortened, and appeared to grasp the frame.

Guy Bauman. "Early Flemish Portraits, 1425–1525." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 43 (Spring 1986), p. 34, ill. (color), lists it as "attributed to Memling," dates it from the mid- to late 1460s, and identifies the "Portrait of an Old Woman" in Houston as its pendant; relates them stylistically to Rogier van der Weyden's portraits.

Dirk De Vos. Hans Memling: The Complete Works. Ghent, 1994, pp. 69, 115, 146, 230–231, 360, 370, 390–391, no. 60, ill. (color), dates it about 1480–90, but elsewhere places it "no earlier than 1486"; hypothesizes that this portrait and Houston "Portrait of an Old Woman" might originally have formed a continuous double portrait, a pictorial type introduced by Memling in the Low Countries; comments on its "Eyckian pictorial quality" which he finds fundamentally different from the portraits that are certain to belong to Memling's early career; discusses the painting's condition.

Dirk De Vos. Hans Memling: Catalogue. Exh. cat., Groeninge Museum, Bruges. Ghent, 1994, p. 68.

Mary Sprinson de Jesús in From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1998, pp. 64, 66, 74, 141, 169, no. 29, ill. p. 168 (color), dates it 1480–90 and suggests that it formed a diptych rather than a continuous double portrait with its pendant in Houston; finds the portrait's exceptional realism and intimacy, as well as the compressed composition unusual in the context of Memling's oeuvre .

Hélène Verougstraete et al. Restaurateurs ou faussaires des primitifs flamands. Exh. cat., Groeninge Museum, Bruges. Ghent, 2004, p. 125, ill. (color), reproduce a drawing by Van der Veken [presumably from the Archives van der Veken, a private archive in Antwerp] after the head in our portrait.

Lorne Campbell in Memling's Portraits. Ed. Till-Holger Borchert. Exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Ghent, 2005, p. 54, 57.

Maryan W. Ainsworth in Memling's Portraits. Ed. Till-Holger Borchert. Exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Ghent, 2005, pp. 94, 105, ill. pp. 106-7 (color and x-radiograph).

Till-Holger Borchert. Memling's Portraits. Exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Ghent, 2005, p. 159.

Barbara G. Lane. Hans Memling: Master Painter in Fifteenth-Century Bruges. London, 2009, p. 111 n. 10, pp. 296–97, no. 51a, fig. 239A.

Alte Meister. Dorotheum, Vienna. June 16, 2011, p. 276, under no. 409, erroneously as by Jan van Eyck.

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