One of the most sought-after Netherlandish portrait painters of his time, Memling’s meticulous attention to detail is notable in the remarkable naturalism of the sitter’s physiognomy and the texture of his velvet, fur-trimmed tunic. The young man was likely one of the many Florentine visitors to, or residents of, Bruges, several of whom commissioned portraits from the artist. It appears that shortly after it was painted, the panel was sent to Florence, where it provided inspiration to Italian artists, who deeply admired Netherlandish painting. A Madonna and Child (Louvre, Paris) painted about 1476-77 and variously attributed to Verrocchio and Ghirlandaio, includes the same landscape vista and classicizing columns. The Italianate columns, which indicate Memling’s familiarity with Italian art and would have pleased his Florentine patron, illustrate that the relationship between Northern and Southern European artists was one of reciprocal influence.
Shown in bust-length and three-quarter view, the youthful sitter’s elegant pose suggests a man of distinction, as does the luxurious quality of his garments. The unidentified man wears a velvet fur-trimmed doublet, decorated with a faintly visible brocade pattern. Two golden rings set with rubies adorn his right hand. With light streaming in from the left, the subject inhabits an open loggia-like space punctuated by marble columns that frame a sunlit landscape, which gradually shifts to blue as it recedes into the distance. When the portrait was first mentioned in 1857, the sitter was identified as Saint Sebastian, due to the presence of an arrow held between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand and a halo around his head. However, these later additions were removed during a cleaning of the picture in 1912. Faint traces of the arrow and halo are still visible.
The man’s hands are placed on the picture’s edge as though resting on a fictive balustrade. In employing such a motif, Memling was inspired by the earlier examples of Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus, who also placed the figure behind a parapet. A raised barbe of paint marking the edge of the picture shows that the portrait was painted while the panel was in a close-fitting engaged frame, and indicates that the tips of several of the sitter’s fingers, which have been cut off, were originally depicted on the lower lintel of the frame itself. Although this frame has not survived, Wolff (1998) notes that Memling used the same illusionistic device in several other portraits to assert the sitter’s physical presence, and to imply contact with the viewer’s space.
Attribution and Date
In 1857 Gustav Friedrich Waagen was the first to recognize the portrait as a work by Memling, and his attribution has since been accepted by all subsequent scholars. Active in Bruges, Memling was one of the most sought-after artists of his time by both locals and foreigners, and his distinctive portraits were in high demand among Italian patrons. Because of the artist’s clever balance of verisimilitude and idealization in his portraits, prominent figures such as the Florentine Tomasso Portinari, the representative of the Medici bank in Bruges, who commissioned the Met’s Portraits of Tommaso and Maria Portinari (no. 14.40.626-627), were part of Memling’s illustrious clientele. Perhaps inspired by the Italian paintings he saw in the houses of his Florentine patrons in Bruges (Christiansen 2011), Memling incorporated Italian motifs in some of his works, such as the columns seen here.
The youthful sitter in the Lehman portrait was most likely a member of the Florentine community in Bruges or a visitor to the Flemish city. Shortly after the portrait’s completion, the sitter sent the painting (or brought it back) to Florence, where it became an influential model. Campbell (1983) recognized that the Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio copied the landscape seen through the columns in his Virgin and Child (Musée du Louvre, Paris, no. 1266; previously attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio), and that Raphael’s Portrait of a Man (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, no. 1482; previously attributed to Pietro Perugino) also shows close similarities to Memling’s portrait. The Lehman panel is a significant example of the dynamic crosscurrents between Italian and Netherlandish painting in the late fifteenth century, and of the larger cultural interrelations between Northern and Southern Europe during the period.
Opinions regarding the dating of the Lehman portrait have differed, ranging from ca. 1472 to 1480 or later. Ghirlandaio’s Virgin and Child, which is dated around 1475-80, could serve as a terminus ante quem. Dendrochronological analysis and stylistic evidence suggest a date around the mid-1470s.
[Charlotte Wytema 2016]
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Francis, 9th Earl of Wemyss (d. 1889), Gosford House, Longniddry, Scotland, by 1857; his son Francis Richard, 10th earl of Wemyss, until 1912; [R. Langton Douglas, London], 1912; [M. Knoedler and Co., London and New York], June 1912 (bought from Douglas); J. H. Dunn, London, December 1912 (bought from Knoedler); [M. Knoedler, London and New York], July 1914 (bought from Dunn). Acquired by Philip Lehman from Knoedler in December 1915.