Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Portrait of an Old Man

Hugo van der Goes (Netherlandish, Ghent, active by 1467–died 1482 Roode-Klooster)
ca. 1470–75
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 641
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 Artist: Hugo van der Goes (ca. 1440–1482), born in Ghent, was one of the leading Flemish artists of the second half of the fifteenth century. Initially, Hugo followed in the grand tradition of the illusionism of Jan van Eyck’s paintings, with a palette of richly saturated colors and a clear organization of space that depended on single vanishing-point perspective. But he soon developed into a highly original and emotionally expressive painter, who favored a more limited palette of cooler hues and distortions of space and figures. Such a change in approach allowed for a greater emphasis on the meditative mood of his paintings in accord with the principal spiritual movement of the time, the Modern Devotion. This was Hugo’s greatest contribution to Early Netherlandish painting of which the Death of the Virgin (Groeningemuseum, Bruges) is his most eloquent statement.

Sponsored by Justus van Ghent, Hugo became a master in the painters’ guild in 1467. Two years later in 1469, these two painters sponsored the guild membership of Alexander Bening, an illuminator, who was related to Hugo by marriage. Between 1474 and August of 1475, Van der Goes served as Dean of the guild. Thereafter, he became a lay brother at the Roode-Klooster, a house of the Windesheim congregation near Brussels, where he continued to paint and where Gaspar Ofhuys recorded Hugo’s descent into deep depression in the final year of his life.

Van der Goes was not only a panel painter but also produced ephemera for ducal court celebrations, such as the wedding of Margaret of York to Charles the Bold, and the entry of Charles the Bold into Ghent in 1468/69. None of Hugo’s panel paintings is signed or dated, but the Portinari Altarpiece (datable between 1473 and 1478; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) was identified by artist biographers Giorgio Vasari in 1550 and Ludovico Guicciardini in 1588 as by “Ugo d’Anversa” [sic]. Commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, the Medici bank branch manager in Bruges and counselor to Duke Charles the Bold, the work was highly influential on Italian artists, such as Filippino Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, and Domenico Ghirlandaio, subsequent to its arrival in Florence in 1483. It is on the basis of the style of this monumental altarpiece that all other attributions of paintings to Hugo have been made. Generally considered among his earlier works are the Nativity and the Adoration of the Kings or Monforte Altarpiece (ca. 1470, both Staatliche Museen, Berlin), which show Hugo’s typical meticulous attention to detail and a sense of psychological reserve in his figures. A heightened emotional expression is resonant in his later work, especially in the Death of the Virgin (ca. 1472–80). Hugo’s idiosyncratic figure types and motifs were influential in other media, namely in tapestry and manuscript illumination. Illuminators, such as the Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian, the Master of the Houghton Miniatures, and the Ghent Associates, transmitted Hugo’s distinctive style into the early sixteenth century, particularly in the region of Ghent and Bruges.

The Subject of the Painting: The extraordinary quality and condition of this keenly affecting depiction of an old man place it among the finest examples of early Netherlandish portraiture. He is at once incisively observed and sympathetically portrayed. Illuminated from the left and facing right, the man wears a purplish robe with a fur collar over a red undergarment, and a shallow-crowned chaperon with trailing cornet over his shoulder—a style of dress of about 1470–75. Showing the characteristic markings of old age, the man has sagging jowls, abundant deep wrinkles and pouches of flesh around the features of his face, and a retruded upper lip, indicating that he is missing his upper teeth.

The painting’s relatively rare and fragile medium of oil on paper laid down to a thin oak panel provides clues about its original function (see Ainsworth 2017, pp. 29–32, and Technical Notes).[1] The sitter’s head is very tightly cropped and placed against a neutral brownish background with no projecting shadow, a detail that ordinarily would have suggested the space around or the setting for an independent portrait. Instead, this head appears to have been fully worked up in oil paint as a study for inclusion in a larger composition. This could have been for a donor portrait on the left wing of a diptych or a triptych, or for inclusion in a larger panel painting.

The Attribution and Date: Although originally thought to be a French Burgundian portrait when it was offered at a 2008 auction at Tajan in Paris (see Refs.), the stylistic and technical features of this closely observed and meticulously rendered head are more characteristic of early Netherlandish painting. In particular, this portrait 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 heads in Hugo's religious works, especially the Adoration of the Kings or Monforte Altarpiece (Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) of about 1470 and the Portinari Altarpiece (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) of 1473–78. A comparison of The Met’s Old Man with the head of Saint Thomas (see Additional Images, fig. 1) from the left wing of the Portinari Altarpiece—although he is a saint type and not a portrait—shows a similar attention to the chiaroscuro treatment and bold modeling of the sharply articulated skeletal structure of the face. Moreover, the deep furrows of the brow, crow’s feet at the proper right eye, and the line defining the fleshy cheek are produced not by superimposed thin layers of glazes, but by deftly juxtaposed brushstrokes of light and dark paint to create the illusion of ridges and deep valleys of flesh. The bulbous shape of the eyes, with their pronounced lower eyelids, is similar, and the irises in each are likewise translucent. The pupil and iris in each sit like a flat disc on the rounded white portion of the eyeball, and catch-lights are placed strategically to give the sense of the watery nature of the eye. The manner in which the ear cartilage appears pinched together above the earlobes is identical.

Although there is no extant panel painting that shows the incorporation of this particular likeness of the Old Man, circumstantial evidence concerning Hugo’s working procedures would support the preparatory function of this oil on paper portrait. First of all is the fact that there are no surviving independent portrait paintings by Hugo (The Met 29.200.15 and 22.60.53, attributed to Hugo, are fragments). Instead, Van der Goes’s extraordinary portraits all appear as donors on the wings of triptychs, such as those on the left and right wings of the Portinari Altarpiece or of Hippolyte de Berthoz and Elisabeth Huygheins on the left wing of Dieric Bouts’s Saint Hippolytus Triptych (ca. 1480; Museum of Sint-Salvatorskathedral, Bruges). In addition to this, the holy figures in Hugo’s paintings are such astonishing examples of verisimilitude that they seem to have been studied after life. In fact, Elisabeth Dhanens proposed that the apostles in the Death of the Virgin must have been based on sketches made from life (d’après la vie or naar het leven). They are executed in a manner so lively, so precise, and the graphic depiction of their features is so individualized that one can imagine that they were based on preliminary drawings of some of the brothers of the Roode-Klooster where Hugo encountered them daily in his residency there.[2] Supporting this hypothesis is the fact that, although there is underdrawing in the apostle figures of the Death of the Virgin for the volume of drapery forms and indication of the system of lighting to be employed, there is no apparent underdrawing for the apostles’s heads.[3] This would indicate that such startling realism must have been based on preparatory drawings on paper, perhaps worked up in oil paint like The Met’s Old Man.

The identity of the old man of The Met’s painting cannot at present be determined. However, he apparently has somewhat of a younger look-alike or doppelgänger among the portraits found at the right edge of the Execution of the Innocent Count, Justice of Emperor Otto III for the Leuven Town Hall (ca. 1475–82; Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels; see Additional Images, fig. 2). What enhances the mystery of this observation is the fact that this was one of the panels left unfinished by Dieric Bouts at his death. Documents indicate that Hugo van der Goes was hired to come to Leuven in 1480 and 1481 to appraise the partially completed commission, but there is no record of when and by whom the work was finished. The suggestion that it might in fact have been Hugo who completed Bouts’s unfinished painting, although very appealing, cannot be supported, for the modeling of the head is different than that of Hugo’s old man; in the Execution panel portrait, facial features appear to be attached to a flatter facial plane and the eyes are rendered in a different manner that does not convey the emotional essence of the man (for further details, see Ainsworth 2017, p. 36). Another proposal that the two portraits are of the same man also must be rejected, since Hugo’s man appears older than the Execution panel man, who must have been painted later. Perhaps most likely is that the so-called doppelgänger was painted by a close follower of Hugo van der Goes.

[Maryan W. Ainsworth 2018]

[1] Paintings in oil on paper are not so readily identified by eye; rather, it is through technical examination that they are most often recognized. Among the growing list of Netherlandish and early French examples currently being assembled are: Jan van Eyck, Follower, Saint Jerome (Detroit Art Institute); Master of the Portraits of Princes, Portrait of a Man (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford); Master of the Portraits of Princes, Portrait of a Bearded Man with a Beret (Bob Haboldt & Co., New York); Jean Perréal (?), Portrait of a Man (P. & N. de Boer, Amsterdam); Quentin Metsys, Portrait of a Man in Profile (Institut de France, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris); Jan Metsys (?), Mourning Woman (Magdalen) and Two Heads of Weeping Women (traced from Quentin Metsys’s Lamentation, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp; Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin); many head studies by Frans Floris (according to Edward Wouk, email of March 12, 2012). Of German Renaissance examples, among the most notable are Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Benedict von Hertenstein (The Met 06.1038), and The Artist’s Family and Adam and Eve (Kunstmuseum, Basel). For further on this issue and other bibliography, see Ainsworth 2017.
[2] Elisabeth Dhanens, Hugo van der Goes, Antwerp, 1998, p. 200.
[3] My sincere thanks to Till-Holger Borchert and to Christina Currie for access to the KIK/IRPA produced infrared reflectography documentation of the Death of the Virgin.
Support: The portrait was painted on a paper support laid onto a thin panel of oak from the Baltic/Polish regions. It seems likely that the painting on paper was adhered to the secondary wood support very early in the painting’s history. The small losses around the edges of the paper may have occurred before it was attached to the panel, though it seems more likely that they are a result of poorly adhered areas being damaged by framing or handling at a later date. Dendrochronological analysis indicated that the panel could have been used as a secondary support in 1447 at the earliest with a more plausible date of 1453 upwards.[1]

Preparation: Although unconfirmed by analysis it appears that the portrait was executed directly on the paper support. Examination with infrared reflectography (see Additional Images, fig. 3) revealed only minimal suggestions of underdrawing at the contours of the head, nose, mouth and eyes.[2] Further evaluation of the underdrawing is difficult as it appears to have been followed, quite exactly, at the painting stage, including descriptive painted surface lines that indicate contours and wrinkles in the face.

Paint Layers: The few small losses to the paper aside, the picture is actually in excellent condition. Executed by the artist in an oil medium with a restricted palette, the painting exhibits a supremely sophisticated but painterly handling to achieve a portrait of arresting presence. There has been some color change: the copper green chaperon worn by the sitter has oxidized to a much browner hue and the paper support itself has yellowed over the centuries and is now several tones darker than when the work was first created. The slightly speckled appearance of the skin tones is a direct result of this natural aging process. In the face, thin veils of subtly modulated color in the shadows are contrasted with more thickly applied opaque passages of half light and highlight describing the elaborate topography of the sitter’s features.

[Michael Gallagher 2010, adapted by Sophie Scully 2018]

[1] Wood identification and dendrochronological analysis completed by Dr. Peter Klein, Universität Hamburg, dated June 21, 2010. The report can be found in the files of the Department of Paintings Conservation. The youngest heartwood ring was formed out in the year 1436. Regarding the sapwood statistic of Eastern Europe an earliest felling date can be derived for the year 1445, more plausible is a felling date between 1449..1451….1455 + x. With a minimum of two years for seasoning an earliest creation of the painting is possible from 1447 upwards. Under the assumption of a median of fifteen sapwood rings and two years for seasoning, as probably usual in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries, a creation is plausible from 1453 upwards.
[2] Infrared reflectography completed with a Merlin Indigo InGaAs near-infrared camera with a StingRay macro lens customized for the wavelengths covered by the camera, 0.9 to 1.7 microns, 2009.
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. Ed. Debra Taylor Cashion et al. Leiden, 2017, pp. 29–36, 38, fig. 3.1 (color), as by Hugo van der Goes.

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