Shortly before 1996, this exquisite and finely preserved Virgin and Child was associated by Edwin Buijsen of the RKD in the Hague with a composition by Bernard van Orley, one of the most important painters and tapestry designers active in Brussels and Antwerp in the first half of the 16th century. Buijsen tentatively attributed the present painting to the master himself on the basis of comparison with a work cited by Friedländer in the Fürstliche Fürstenbergische Sammlungen, Donaueschingen (Early Netherlandish Painting, VIII, Joan Gossart and Bernart van Orley, trans. H. Norden, New York, 1972, pl. 118, no. 137a). The present Virgin and Child was exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts from 1997 to 2013 with a full attribution to Van Orley. Van Orley's authorship has recently been confirmed by Lars Hendrikman, who, on the basis of photographs, notes that it is of exceptional quality and exhibits many of the hallmarks of the artist's devotional works from the early 1520s. The Virgin's slender hands and the Christ child's chubby face and wispy hair are typical of the artist; similar features may be found in the female donors in the Haneton Triptych as well as in some of the figures on the wings of the Vertue de patience triptych (both Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels). The painting is closest to Van Orley's Virgin and Child sold at Sotheby's New York, 25 January 2001, lot 38. The same emotionally-charged interaction between mother and child can be observed in both works, as can such details as Christ's slightly upturned nose and the figures' rosy, full-lipped mouths. There are also several parallels with the Louvre Holy Family (signed and dated 1521), including the position of the Christ Child's right arm and hand, which rest on the transparent veil beneath his mother's neck. Van Orley's so-called Romanist style finds expression in the infant's robust physique and contrapposto stance, which can be related in particular to Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna of 1501-1504 (Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, Bruges), which Van Orley would have known.
Half-length representations of the Virgin tenderly touching her cheek to the Christ Child derive from Byzantine icons of the Eleousa ("Tenderness") type, as interpreted by Italian Duecento and Trecento artists. Believed to have been based on a portrait painted by Saint Luke, the celebrated Italo-Byzantine panel known as the Cambrai Madonna had a strong impact on the evolution of this compositional genre in the Netherlands. In 1440, Canon Fursy de Bruille brought the painting from Rome to Cambrai, where it was housed in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Grâce and extensively copied (see E. Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, its origins and character, Cambridge, 1953, I, p. 297). Rogier van der Weyden's interpretation of the Cambrai Madonna, thought to be recorded in a drawing in the Staätliche Kunstsammlungen, Kupferstichkabinett, Dresden, inspired a group of half-length images of the Virgin holding a standing Christ Child, with which the present painting is clearly associated (see D. De Vos, Rogier van der Weyden: The Complete Works, trans. T. Alkins, New York, 1999, pp. 358-9, no. B5). Executed with remarkable delicacy, details such as the Virgin's pearls or the golden highlights of her cascading hair make Van Orley's painting among his finest and most poignant examples in this genre.
We are grateful to Lars Hendrikman for his assistance in cataloguing this painting.