Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Portrait of an Old Man

Hugo van der Goes (Netherlandish, Ghent, active by 1467–died 1482 Rood-Klooster)
Oil on paper, laid down on wood
Overall 8 3/4 x 6 1/2 in. (22.2 x 16.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, 2009 Benefit Fund, Hester Diamond Gift, Victor Wilbour Memorial Fund, Mary Harriman Foundation and Friends of European Paintings Gifts, Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Fund, Marquand and Charles B. Curtis Funds, and University Place Foundation Gift, 2010
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 644
In this closely observed and sympathetic portrayal of an old man, special attention is given to how light models the subject’s wrinkled, time-worn face. This objective realism is characteristic of the paintings of Hugo van der Goes, especially those of the early 1470s. However, Hugo’s works do not include independent portraits, and additionally, the technique of oil on paper is relatively rare. The extremely tight cropping of the image, uniform brownish background, and absence of any projecting shadow from the head indicate that this portrait was made as a detailed preliminary study for inclusion in a larger painting.
The extraordinary quality and condition of this keenly affecting portrayal of an old man place it among the finest examples of early Netherlandish portraiture. Furthermore, paintings in the fragile medium of oil on paper laid down on wood rarely survive. Rather than being cut down from a larger composition, the tightly edited image was probably planned as an independent portrait. The painter may have found it practical to continue to work up in paint a likeness that he had already begun as a drawing on paper.

Closely observed and meticulously rendered in the manner of early Netherlandish painting, this portrait also conveys a psychological intensity and objective realism that relate it to the work of Hugo van der Goes. In its subtle illumination and attentive modeling, it is similar to male faces in Hugo's religious works, especially the Monforte altarpiece (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) of about 1470 and the Portinari altarpiece (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) of 1473–78. Indeed, the costume of the sitter—a purple robe with a fur collar and a deep green chaperon, or hat, with trailing cornets at the sides—dates to about 1470–75. Independent portraits by Hugo are extremely rare, and further investigations will help to situate this splendid example in its proper place within the context of Netherlandish portraiture.

[2010; adapted from Ainsworth 2010]
private collection (from about 1900); by descent through great-great-uncle and grandparents to private collection, Alsace, near Strasbourg (until 2008; sale, Tajan, Paris, June 26, 2008, no. 13, to Fogg and Feigen); [Sam Fogg Ltd., London, and Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York, 2008–10; sold to MMA]
Tableaux anciens et du XIXème siècle. Tajan, Paris. June 26, 2008, pp. 16–17, no. 13, ill. (color), as by a French artist working in Burgundy about 1450–70.

Maryan W. Ainsworth in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2008–2010." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 68 (Fall 2010), p. 18, ill. (color), as by Circle of Hugo van der Goes.

Maryan W. Ainsworth. "Hugo van der Goes and Portraiture." The Primacy of the Image in Northern European Art, 1400–1700: Essays in Honor of Larry Silver. Leiden, 2017, pp. 28–36, 38, fig. 3.1 (color), as by Hugo van der Goes.

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