Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Head of a Donor

Attributed to Albert van Ouwater (Netherlandish, active mid-15th century)
ca. 1460
Oil on wood
3 7/8 x 3 1/2 in. (9.8 x 8.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 644
Similar to the Donor Presented by a Saint (32.100.41), this portrait was cut from a larger religious work. The man would have been kneeling in prayer, perhaps before a devotional scene or holy figures. His garments, a fur-trimmed cassock and pleated surplice, indicate that he is a priest. The wrinkles and folds of flesh, more pronounced than those in works by Dieric Bouts and his circle, are characteristic of the heads in Aelbert van Ouwater’s securely documented works.

This painting is a fragment cut from a larger composition, either the left wing of a diptych or triptych, or the left side of a single panel. The man shown was likely the donor figure within a devotional scene. His garments, a fur-trimmed cassock and pleated surplice, indicate that he is a priest. He was undoubtedly shown in the conventional pose of a donor figure: kneeling, with hands held in prayer, presented by his patron saint. The hand of his patron saint, who may have been John the Baptist, can be seen in the upper left of the existing fragment. In the full composition the donor would have been shown on the left, facing towards an object of devotion, such as the Virgin and Child, on the right.

Although initially attributed to Jan van Eyck, this fragment was first ascribed to Aelbert van Ouwater by Friedländer (1925). Ouwater is best known for his Raising of Lazarus (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). According to the early seventeenth-century Netherlandish artist biographer Karel van Mander, Ouwater was the founder of the Haarlem school and influenced the work of Dieric Bouts and Gerard David. The face of the donor in this fragment both bears a resemblance and is treated similarly to figures in Ouwater’s Berlin painting, particularly the artist’s attention to the aged qualities of the donor’s skin, in the radiating wrinkles around his eye and the furrows of his brow. The set gaze of the man and the squatness of his head are also in keeping with figures in known Ouwater paintings (Sprinson de Jesús 1998). Infrared reflectography reveals some underdrawing in the facial features, and demonstrates that the entire head was shifted slightly to the left in the painted layers.

There are two engraved copies of this fragment, both of which show the figure in reverse, omit the patron saint, include the priest’s hands in prayer, and are identified as representations of Saint Thomas of Canterbury (Thomas Becket, 1118–1170). The version by Wenceslaus Hollar, dated to 1647, shows the subject with the sword of his execution thrust into his head, and was engraved when the painting was in the collection of the earl of Arundel and Norfolk. The other, by Lucas Vorsterman, lacks the sword. It is possible that the patron saint was painted over at one point to give this fragment the appearance of an independent portrait—the eighteenth-century author and engraver George Vertue (1742) does not mention the hand of the saint in his description of the painting.

Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel and Norfolk, London (until d. 1646); his widow, Lady Alatheia Talbot, Countess of Arundel, Amsterdam (1646–d. 1654; posthumous inventory, April 10, 1655 as "un ritrato de homo in profill, disegno de Jan van Eyck"); by descent to Henry Thomas Howard-Molyneux-Howard, Greystoke Castle, Penrith, Cumberland (until d. 1824); Henry Howard, Greystoke Castle (by 1858–d. 1875); Henry Charles Howard, Greystoke Castle (until 1909); J. Pierpont Morgan, New York (1909–d. 1913; his estate, 1913–17)
London. British Institution. "Exhibition of the Ancient Masters," 1858, no. 125 (as "Head of a Priest" by Van Eyck [but see Scharf 1858]; lent by Henry Howard, Esq., of Greystoke).

Art Gallery of the Corporation of London. "Early Flemish Painters," 1906, no. 6 (as "Portrait of a Donor" by Jan van Eyck, lent by H. C. Howard, Esq.).

Poughkeepsie. Vassar College Art Gallery. "Humanism North and South," February 29–March 18, 1956, no catalogue?

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. 25 (as "Attributed to Aelbert van Ouwater").

Inventory of Pictures, etc. in Possession of Alethea, Countess of Arundel, at the Time of Her Death in Amsterdam in 1654. April 10, 1655 [published by Lionel Cust, Notes on the Collections formed by Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel and Surrey, K. G., in Burlington Magazine, vol. 19, April–September 1911, see p. 284], lists "Un ritrato de homo in profill, disegno de Jan van Eyck" [presumably this portrait].

George Vertue. Notebook entry. 1742 [published in "Vertue Note Books Volume V" in Walpole Society, vol. 26, (1937–38), p. 31], mentioned as "a head small om board painted in oyl — like the print doen by Hollar. of S. Tho. Becket" in notes on Charles Howard's collection at Soho Square.

Sir George Scharf. Artistic and Descriptive Notes on the Most Remarkable Pictures in the British Institution Exhibition of the Ancient Masters. Exh. cat., London British Institution. London, 1858, pp. 32–33, no. 125, rejects the catalogues formal attribution of this portrait to "Van Eyck" and suggests instead that it "may possibly be assigned to one of their followers, Justus of Ghent"; believes it depicts a kneeling donor and the hand touching his head belongs to his patron saint; notes that there are two engravings of this portrait in reverse in which the sitter is identified as Thomas-à-Becket, martyr of Canterbury: the Hollar engraving, dated 1647, includes a sword wedged in the head, Thomas's emblem, and is inscribed "Secundum Originale. Joh. ab Eyck ex coll. Arundel"; the engraving by Vostermann has no sword but is inscribed "Effigies S. Thomæ Cantua. Archiepi. Mart.".

Ludwig Kaemmerer. Hubert und Jan van Eyck. Bielefeld, 1898, p. 56, fig. 39 (Hollar engraving), considers Hollar's engraving the record of a lost painting representing Thomas à Becket which its owner, the Earl Arundel, believed to be a work of Jan van Eyck.

W. H. James Weale. "Paintings by John van Eyck and Albert Dürer formerly in the Arundel Collection." Burlington Magazine 6 (December 1904), pp. 248–49, pl. 5 (this portrait and the Hollar engraving), considers it part of a dexter shutter of a triptych by Jan van Eyck; considers it a portrait of a donor, a canon, not Becket; comments on differences between the Hollar engraving and the painting.

Émile Durand-Gréville. "Les primitifs flamands a l'exposition de Guildhall." Les arts anciens de flandre 2 (1906–7), p. 63, attributes it to a pupil of Jan van Eyck.

Paul Lambotte. "Expositions des peintres flamands & belges a Londres (Guildhall)." L'art flamand & hollandais 3 (July–December 1906), p. 56.

[Max J.] Friedländer. "Die Leihausstellung in der Guildhall zu London.—Sommer 1906.—Hauptsächlich niederländische Bilder des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts." Burlington Magazine 29 (1906), p. 574, rejects the attribution to Jan van Eyck.

W. H. James Weale. Hubert and John van Eyck, their Life and Work. London, 1908, pp. 171–72, no. 36, ill. opp. p. 170 (this portrait and Hollar engraving), lists it as "Portrait of an Ecclesiastic," then in the H. C. Howard collection at Greystoke Castle; calls it a fragment of a large panel picture or of the dexter shutter of a triptych.

W. H. James Weale. "Notes on Some Portraits of the Early Netherlandish School." Burlington Magazine 17 (June 1910), p. 177, identifies this portrait with an entry in the Arundel inventory of 1655 [see Ref. 1655].

W. H. James Weale and Maurice W. Brockwell. The Van Eycks and their Art. London, 1912, pp. 184–85, no. 46.

"The Pierpont Morgan Gift." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 13 (January 1918), p. 16, as "Thomas à Becket" by Jan van Eyck.

Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 1, Die Van Eyck, Petrus Christus. Berlin, 1924, p. 165, describes it as pedantically mannered after Van Eyck.

Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 3, Dierick Bouts und Joos van Gent. Berlin, 1925, pp. 61, 112, no. 35, pl. 47, attributes our painting to Aelbert van Ouwater, comparing it with his Raising of Lazarus (Staatliche Museen, Berlin).

Franz Dülberg. Niederländische Malerei der Spätgotik und Renaissance. Potsdam, 1929, p. 76.

[Hippolyte] Fierens-Gevaert and Paul Fierens. Histoire de la peinture flamande des origines à la fin du XVe siècle. Vol. 3, La maturité de l'art flamand. Paris, 1929, p. 12, as an authentic work by Ouwater.

Kurt Steinbart in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 26, Leipzig, 1932, p. 102.

G. J. Hoogewerff. De noord-nederlandsche schilderkunst. Vol. 2, The Hague, 1937, p. 67, accepts Friedländer's [Ref. 1925] attribution to Ouwater.

Wolfgang Schöne. Dieric Bouts und seine Schule. Berlin, 1938, p. 23, alludes to it as one of the two extant works by Ouwater.

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 50–52, ill., mention that removal of overpainting has revealed the hand of a patron saint resting on the donor's head.

Erwin Panofsky. Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character. Cambridge, Mass., 1953, vol. 1, pp. 321, 494 n. 3 (to p. 321), calls it the only other possible work by Ouwater aside from his Raising of Lazarus in Berlin.

Klára Garas. "Some Problems of Early Dutch and Flemish Painting." Acta Historiae Artium Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 1, no. 3–4 (1954), p. 251.

Max J. Friedländer. Early Netherlandish Painting: From van Eyck to Bruegel. Ed. F. Grossmann. English ed. [first ed. 1916]. New York, 1956, p. 28 n. 1.

Albert Châtelet. "Albert van Ouwater." Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 55 (February 1960), pp. 66–67, 78, n. 4, finds the attribution to Ouwater very convincing, comparing this portrait to Saint Peter in the Berlin Raising of Lazarus.

James E. Snyder. "The Early Haarlem School of Painting, I. Ouwater and the Master of the Tiburtine Sibyl." Art Bulletin 42 (1960), p. 44, fig. 7, believes this fragment "may well be by the hand of the Master [Ouwater]".

Colin Eisler. "Erik Larsen, Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York, 1960." Art Bulletin 46 (March 1964), p. 101, calls it the "only remotely plausible addition to the oeuvre of Aelbert van Ouwater".

Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 1, The van Eycks—Petrus Christus. New York, 1967, pp. 93, 110 n. 71, pl. 97c.

Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 3, Dieric Bouts and Joos van Gent. New York, 1968, pp. 36, 64, no. 35.

Charles Sterling. Letter. February 20, 1971, would call it "Attributed to A. v. Ouwater".

Lorne Campbell. Unpublished text for MMA Bulletin. 1981, suggests that the panel was cut to its present size in the early 17th century; notes that it is uncertain if the knife and praying hands in Hollar's engraving after this portrait were the engraver's inventions or if the painted fragment showed these additions when the print was made.

Albert Châtelet. Early Dutch Painting: Painting in the Northern Netherlands in the Fifteenth Century. English ed. [French ed. 1980]. New York, 1981, pp. 70, 209–10, pl. 58, comments that "it goes without saying that such a small fragment is hard to ascribe conclusively," but lists it with the works of Ouwater.

Richard Pennington. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Etched Work of Wenceslaus Hollar 1607–77. Cambridge, 1982, p. 235, no. 1370, lists an etching of Thomas à Becket made by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1647; based on differences between the MMA portrait and the print, speculates that Arundel's collection contained another oil painting corresponding to the print which "may not be the van Eyck that passed to J.P. Morgan".

James Snyder in The Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 23, New York, 1996, p. 673.

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. 156, 158–59, no. 25, ill. (color), as "Attributed to Aelbert van Ouwater," about 1460; notes that the hand and the background elements were overpainted most likely between 1647, the year of Hollar's print, and 1905, when, illustrated in Weale, the drapery and hand of patron saint were visible again.

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