In a startling departure from conventional devotional portraits, the sitter looks off to her left, distracted from reading her Book of Hours. This sense of interruption is furthered by the position of her fingers—one is inserted between the pages of her book, as if to hold her place. Although she is dressed simply, consistent with the style of bourgeois women of the time, her precious devotional book, with its floral illuminations and gilded margins, is an object of luxury. The book indicates the subject’s piety, literacy, and wealth. It is very similar to those made in early-sixteenth-century workshops in Bruges, most famously the one headed by the illuminator Simon Bening.
The architectural setting of the painting includes two marble columns, a stone lintel, and a superimposed arch with an acanthus leaf design. These are Italianate motifs, which in Massys’s time were becoming more common in Netherlandish art. The convention of framing sitters with architectural motifs in this portrait and a related Portrait of a Man by Massys (private collection, Belgium) shows the influence of the Moreel portraits from about 1472–75 by Hans Memling (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels).
The two Massys portraits were previously believed to be a pair of a husband and wife. The opportunity to view the two portraits together in the 1998 exhibition "From Van Eyck to Bruegel" and for several years when the Portrait of a Man was on loan to the Museum from 2008–12 revealed that despite their similarity in composition, they were not necessarily meant as pendants. Contemporary Netherlandish paintings of married couples are usually made on separate but matching panels, with the man on the left and the woman on the right. Ordinarily, both figures gaze towards a central image of devotion. In the case of the two Massys portraits, both are bust-length figures, holding devotional objects, and seated between a set of stone columns. However, when the two are juxtaposed, the architectural details do not all line up. Furthermore, the figures both look in the same direction, beyond their confined space. It is likely that they were part of a larger series of portraits meant to be displayed in an ecclesiastical setting, such as a choir stall within a church. If so, then together they may gaze toward a devotional image within the larger liturgical space.
Examination of both portraits with infrared reflectography revealed that the acanthus leaf decoration was painted on top of the completed lintel not long after the paintings were completed. It may have been added to make the paintings match other images within a series of portraits. Originally the woman stood before a tooled masonry background, which matched that in the Portrait of a Man. The masonry was later overpainted with a dark monochrome background. Furthermore, the peak of the woman’s headdress was lowered.
[2011; expanded and adapted from Sintobin 1998]
Max J. Friedländer. "Bildnisse von Quentin Massys." Pantheon 1 (February 1928), pp. 171–72, ill., attributes this portrait to Quentin Massys.
Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 7, Quentin Massys. Berlin, 1929, pp. 66, 122, no. 48, pl. 45, attributes it to Massys, probably after 1520, and comments on the unified lighting.
Bryson Burroughs and Harry B. Wehle. "The Michael Friedsam Collection: Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 27, section 2 (November 1932), p. 28, no. 39.
Ludwig Baldass. "Gotik und Renaissance im Werke des Quinten Metsys." Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien, n.s., 7 (1933), p. 163, dates it before 1509 on the basis of costume.
Hans Tietze. Meisterwerke europäischer Malerei in Amerika. Vienna, 1935, p. 334, pl. 140 [English ed., "Masterpieces of European Painting in America," New York, 1939, p. 318, pl. 140], dates it between 1520 and 1530.
Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 14, Pieter Bruegel und Nachträge zu den früheren Bänden. Leiden, 1937, p. 109, lists a Portrait of a Man in the Bodmer Collection in Zurich [now Collection Mrs. H. von Schulthess-Bodmer, Schloss Au, Switzerland] as the pendant to our picture.
E. P. Richardson. "Quentin Massys." Art Quarterly 4 (1941), pp. 169–70, fig. 4, dates it about 1510 on the basis of costume and technique; asserts that Massys adopts the frame of porphyry columns and arch from his Madonna pictures as a tribute to the importance of the sitter.
K. G. Boon in "Bouts–David–Geertgen tot St Jans–Moro–Breugel." Palet-Serie: Een reeks monografieën over hollandse en vlaamse schilders. Amsterdam, , pp. 50, 52, ill.
Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 107–8, ill., date it "at least as late as 1520," based on the framing architecture, the oblique disposition of the sitter and her challenging glance outwards.
Julius S. Held. "Book Reviews: Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta M. Salinger . . ., 1947." Art Bulletin 31 (June 1949), p. 140, notes that the picture is abraded.
Josephine L. Allen and Elizabeth E. Gardner. A Concise Catalogue of the European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1954, p. 64.
Luigi Mallé. "Quinten Metsys." Commentari 6, no. 2 (April–June 1955), p. 101, ill.,
Erik Larsen. Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York. Utrecht, 1960, pp. 86, 128, fig. 29.
Charles D. Cuttler. Northern Painting from Pucelle to Bruegel. New York, 1968, p. 422, ill.
Gert von der Osten and Horst Vey. Painting and Sculpture in Germany and the Netherlands 1500 to 1600. Baltimore, 1969, p. 151, mention it as a "very mature portrait of a woman looking out from between the columns of a church porch".
Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 7, Quentin Massys. New York, 1971, pp. 35, 65, 81, no. 48, pl. 49, locates the pendant in the collection of Mrs. H. von Schulthess-Bodmer, Schloss Au, Switzerland.
A. de Bosque. Quentin Metsys. Brussels, 1975, pp. 237, 383, fig. 303, dates it about 1520.
Lorne Campbell. Unpublished text for MMA Bulletin. 1981, dates it about 1510 and calls it an "experiement with arrested movement"; comments that the flower ornament in her book is early 16th-century in style.
Larry Silver. The Paintings of Quinten Massys with Catalogue Raisonné. Montclair, N.J., 1984, pp. 123, 164–65, 185, 237–39, no. 60A, pl. 140, dates it about 1519–20 and notes that it continues the brown tonalities and active movement of Massys's portraits of 1517; comments on the similar flesh tones and leafy decoration on the capitals in the Rem Altarpiece of the same date (Alte Pinakothek, Munich); suggests that Memling inspired Massy's use of pair portraits with columns; identifies the prayer book as one of the more expensive illuminated books of early 16th-century Bruges, part of the Ghent-Bruges school of illuminatin headed by Simon Bening; believes the marble columns suggest the exalted realm that will be the reward of the devout sitter.
Guy Bauman. "Early Flemish Portraits, 1425–1525." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 43 (Spring 1986), pp. 44–46, ill. in color (overall and detail inside front cover), sees Italianate influence in the architectural motif and acanthus-leaf arch; comments on the duality of motivation in the sitter's concern for recording her piety as well as her wealth and social position—as manifested in the precious prayerbook.
Lorne Campbell. Renaissance Portraits. New Haven, 1990, pp. 34, 36–37, 65, 109, 248 n. 58, fig. 44 (color), dates it 1510–20, based on the sitter's costume; suggests that our picture and its pendant may once have formed a double portrait on a single panel, noting that our panel retains its unpainted edge only on the lower margin and the other sides must have been sawn off.
Hans J. van Miegroet in Introduction by Walter A. Liedtke. Flemish Paintings in America: A Survey of Early Netherlandish and Flemish Paintings in the Public Collections of North America. Antwerp, 1992, pp. 24, 100–101, no. 26, ill. (color), dates it shortly after 1520, noting that the woman's headdress confirms a date between 1515 and 1520 and the architectural framework indicates a period of origin around 1519–20.
Jochen Sander. Niederländische Gemälde im Städel, 1400–1550. Mainz, 1993, pp. 291–92, ill.
Katharine Baetjer. European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born Before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. New York, 1995, p. 266, ill.
Véronique Sintobin 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. vii, 59, 69, 74, 143–44, 187, 189, no. 38, ill. (color), dates it about 1520.
John Oliver Hand. "New York. From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Burlington Magazine 140 (December 1998), p. 855.
Peter Wegmann in Sammlung Oskar Reinhart 'Am Römerholz,' Winterthur: Gesamtkatalog. Ed. Mariantonia Reinhard-Felice. Basel, 2003, p. 193.