Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Man of Sorrows

Workshop of Aelbert Bouts (Netherlandish, Leuven ca. 1451/54–1549)
ca. 1525
Oil on oak
Arched top, 17 1/2 x 11 1/4 in. (44.5 x 28.6 cm)
Credit Line:
The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931
Accession Number:
Not on view
Aelbert Bouts, one of Dieric's sons, is known for his gruesome renditions of devotional subjects painted by his father. The focus on Christ's pain and suffering, expressed in the prominently displayed wounds and blood-drenched face and neck, reflects the tenor of many devotional tracts of the period.
The Subject: This image depicts Christ as the Man of Sorrows, wearing the crown of thorns and revealing the nail wounds on his hands from the Crucifixion. The composition is based on a presumed lost prototype, probably developed in the workshop of Dieric Bouts (active by 1457–died 1475). The MMA painting may have been an individual work, or perhaps was once joined with a Mourning Virgin to form a diptych (Sprinson de Jesús 1998). Many diptych copies that follow the same prototype, with variations, are extant, and the versions represent a range in artistic quality (see also MMA 71.156–57). During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, such images served as objects of devotion that invited the viewer to empathize with Christ’s suffering and contemplate his salvation of humankind.

The Attribution: Particular attention is given to the gruesomeness of Christ’s torture. His wounds are prominent and blood and tears drip down his face and neck (see Technical Notes). The emotionally charged pathos of this figure is more characteristic of paintings by Aelbert Bouts than those by his father Dieric (for the artists’ biographies see MMA 30.95.280). Aelbert and his assistants produced copies of his father’s most successful compositions long after Dieric’s death in 1475, thereby contributing to their popularity in the Netherlands well into the sixteenth century (see also MMA 60.55.2). The distinct and systematic painting technique (see Technical Notes), the hard appearance of Christ’s skin, and a certain awkwardness within the composition—all as compared to works by Aelbert Bouts such as the MMA Head of Saint John the Baptist on a Charger (60.55.2) and a recently discovered autograph Man of Sorrows (Adam Williams, New York)—designate this painting as a work by a skilled assistant but not executed by the master himself.

Infrared reflectography has revealed a free-hand contour line underdrawing in the Metropolitan painting as well as faint underdrawn hatching to indicate shading (see Additional Images, fig. 1, and Technical Notes). While the underdrawing does not show any evidence of the fixed, rigid lines of a pattern transfer (in contrast to MMA 71.156–57), the artist who created this painting clearly utilized an established workshop design, whether he referred to a drawn model or to another painting, or simply recreated the familiar composition from routine practice. A Mourning Virgin panel that the MMA painting was possibly joined with to form a diptych was not necessarily made by the same painter or at the same time, as the Aelbert Bouts workshop produced many versions of both subjects for the open market. Potential buyers could make selections based on personal preferences, either choosing to purchase a Man of Sorrows as an independent devotional image or to pair it with a Mourning Virgin (see John Oliver Hand, Catherine A. Metzger, and Ron Spronk, eds., Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych, New Haven, 2006, pp. 50–51).

Valentine Henderiks (2011) has related the painting to the central panel of a triptych of a Sorrowing Christ, flanked by side panels of angels holding instruments of the Passion, attributed to Aelbert and sold at Sotheby’s, New York, in 1995. There are slight differences in the position of the head and hands between the two figures, but the most striking change is that Christ in the MMA panel has a more tortured expression. Henderiks speculates that this difference may indicate that the panel was intended for export to southern Europe, to a region which preferred greater pathos of expression.

[Maryan W. Ainsworth 2012; updated Anna-Claire Stinebring 2015]
Support: The support is composed of two oak panels, with the grain oriented in the vertical direction. The join is located to the far left of center, 1 1/2 inches (3.9 cm) from the left edge. Dendrochronological analysis indicated an earliest possible creation date of 1501, with a more plausible date of 1507 or later. The wood panels originated in the Baltic/Polish region [wood identification and dendrochronological analysis completed by Peter Klein, 2014]. The support was planed to 3/8 inch (0.9cm), cradled and the reverse was subsequently coated with a thick layer of wax.

Preparation: The panel was prepared with an off-white ground that was likely white originally but is now discolored. Unpainted margins of roughly 3/8 inch (1 cm) and a raised lip of paint along all edges indicate that the original dimensions are preserved. The gold background was further prepared with a reddish-brown layer, which may contain a mordant. The reddish-brown layer is reminiscent of bole, but the appearance of the gold background is consistent with mordant gilding.

Examination with infrared reflectography (see Additional Images, fig. 1) revealed the presence of an underdrawing, executed with a liquid medium. The underdrawn lines are very faint in infrared reflectography because the medium is very dilute. Furthermore, interference from black material in the cracks renders the lines difficult to discern. But close inspection reveals that all major contour lines are underdrawn as well as broad hatches in the shadows, which are particularly noticeable in Christ’s chest. In the painting the artist has made minor adjustments from the underdrawn composition; most significantly he has painted the eyes about 1/4 inch (0.5 cm) lower from their position in the underdrawing. He also shifted Christ’s fingers slightly.

In the paint sample taken from the gold background, black particles were evident between the white preparation layer and the red priming in the background. This scattering of particles could be residue from an underdrawing that was executed with a dry medium and brushed away prior to painting. No evidence of a dry underdrawing was noted in the infrared reflectogram.

Paint Layers: The composition was painted with thick, medium-rich paint, using many wet-in-wet brushstrokes. Many of the strokes in the face are distinctly linear, giving the painting a graphic quality. The painting was executed with forethought, suggesting the hand of an experienced artist, and using a few distinctive techniques that may help to distinguish this artist from others in the Bouts group.

A notable amount of blue paint, that appears to be azurite, has been used throughout the painting. A scattering of blue pigments was incorporated into the fleshtones, which enhances the ghastly quality of Christ as the Man of Sorrows. The same blue pigment was also applied very thinly atop the fleshtones to create shadows in the face, such as in the bags of Christ’s eyes and the hollows of his cheeks (see Additional Images, fig. 2). The artist also used blue in building up the vibrant red drapery of the robe. The red robe was first modeled with blue underpainting, like a grisaille underpainting but using blue and white mixtures instead of black and white. The drapery was then painted atop the blue underpainting with red and white paint mixtures. A glaze of a deep red, likely a lake, was then applied overall, most thickly in the shadows.

The drops of blood were created using a measured approach. The right contour of each drop was first outlined with an orange-red paint and then the rest of the drop was filled in with the same deep red glaze used in the robe. Lastly, a white dash was added as a highlight atop each blood drop (see Additional Images, fig. 3). This consistent buildup gives the sense of a light source hitting each drop alike. And the varied methods of building up the red color help differentiate the translucent red drops from the red cloth of the robe.

Christ’s gold-tinged ringlets were painted efficiently: first broad strokes of brown were laid in and then thin brushstrokes of a yellow-brown and finally a pale yellow were added to create both the structure of the curls and the highlights. The impressive regularity and fineness of the highlights raises the question of whether a comb or tool of some sort was used to facilitate their painting, however, there is enough variety in the brushstrokes to conclude that each stroke was painted individually.

The paint layers are largely in very good condition. The finest brown lines, in the eyelashes and the hairs on the knuckles, are somewhat abraded. The red glazes are slightly rubbed at the high points but, in general, are not faded. There are only a few passages where a lake may have faded in the most translucent drops of blood.

Rounded inclusions that are present throughout the composition, including the background, are lead soaps.

[Sophie Scully 2015]
Alfred Beurdeley, Paris (until 1920; his sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, May 6–7, 1920, no. 138); [Kleinberger, New York]; Michael Friedsam, New York (until d. 1931)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Michael Friedsam Collection," November 15, 1932–April 9, 1933, no catalogue.

Wooster, Ohio. Josephine Long Wishart Museum of Art. "Exhibition of Paintings of French, Italian, Dutch, Flemish and German Masters, lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 20–December 15, 1944, unnumbered cat. (p. 13).

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, not in catalogue.

Musée National d'Histoire et d'Art Luxembourg. "Blut und Tränen: Albrecht Bouts und das Antlitz der Passion," October 7, 2016–February 12, 2017, no. 22.

Aachen. Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum. "Blut und Tränen: Albrecht Bouts und das Antlitz der Passion," March 8–June 11, 2017, no. 22.

Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 3, Dierick Bouts und Joos van Gent. Berlin, 1925, p. 118, no. 63 B, pl. LX.

Max J. Friedländer in The Michael Friedsam Collection. [completed 1928], p. 136, as "The Tortured Christ".

Wolfgang Schöne. Dieric Bouts und seine Schule. Berlin, 1938, p. 199, no. 33.

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 88–89, ill.

Ernest Lotthé. La pensée chrétienne dans la peinture flamande et hollandaise. Lille, 1947, vol. 2, pp. 257, 343, no. 608.

Libuša Cidlinská. "Ecce homo zo zbierok Slovenskej národnej galérie [An Ecce Homo from the collection of the Slovak National Gallery (Bratislava)]." Ars 1, no. 2 (1967), pp. 161–64 n. 4, ill., compares it to an Ecce Homo by Aelbert Bouts in the Ruffo collection in Brussels (ill. p. 162); comments on the similar drapery in these pictures and in a workshop version in Bratislava (museum no. O 550; ill. p. 160).

Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 3, Dieric Bouts and Joos van Gent. New York, 1968, p. 67, no. 63b, pl. 77.

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. 242, 405, ill.

Hélène Mund in Dirk Bouts (ca. 1410–1475): Een Vlaams primitief te Leuven. Ed. Maurits Smeyers. Exh. cat., Sint-Pieterskerk en Predikherenkerk, Leuven. Louvain, 1998, p. 566, mentions it in relation to the similar "Christ as Man of Sorrows" in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons, which she ascribes to Aelbert Bouts about 1500.

Burton L. Dunbar. The Collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: German and Netherlandish Paintings, 1450–1600. Kansas City, Mo., 2005, p. 182, fig. 13b.

Valentine Henderiks. Albrecht Bouts (1451/55–1549). Brussels, 2011, pp. 247–48, 331 nn.194–97, p. 390, no. 144, ill., and fig. 221, questioningly attributes it to the workshop of Aelbert Bouts.

Valentine Henderiks in Blut und Tränen: Albrecht Bouts und das Antlitz der Passion. Ed. Peter van den Brink et al. Exh. cat., Musée National d'Histoire et d'Art Luxembourg. Regensburg, 2016, pp. 33, 104, 106, no. 22, ill. p. 107 (color).

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