Friedländer gave the name 'Master of the 1540s' to the author of around thirty portraits painted in Antwerp between 1541 and 1551. The notable absence in this group of coats of arms and other indicators of aristocracy suggest that the artist worked primarily for the merchant classes and works such as Portrait of a bearded man are characteristic of his output. He helped fill the void created by the death of Joos van Cleve around 1540 but does not seem to have had either Joos' artistic range or connections at court. Little is known about the life of the 'Master of the 1540s' and his oeuvre as it is defined today has been assembled primarily on stylistic grounds.
As in this painting, the Master's sitters are often seen frontally or slightly averted with their heads placed close to the top edge of the panel. The lighter background allows for the visual interest of the silhouette and the device of the cast shadow, one that Joos van Cleve used in his later works, reinforces the three-dimensionality of the sitter's form and lends a sense of depth to the space he inhabits. The sitter's clothing does not distract from the details of his physiognomy and the glimpses of white seen at the collar and cuffs emphasize his head and hands. Touches of gold, the chain around his neck and the ring on his finger, indicate wealth and status and his gesture of holding a pair of gloves was a standard pose for sitters of this class.
Portraiture is an inherently conservative genre and it is not surprising that works given to the 'Master of the 1540s' do not contain unusual iconography or experimental techniques. He worked within established traditions and served patrons who expected traditional imagery. The identity of very few of his sitters is known. A rare example is Portrait of Gillis van Schoonbeke aged 25 of 1544 (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp). Schoonbeke was a citizen of Antwerp and was guardian of the city's hospital, further evidence that the Master of the 1540s worked in Antwerp. Other paintings firmly attributed to the artist include the pendant to Schoonbeke's portrait, a portrait of his seventeen-year old wife also in Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten), Portrait of a forty-nine year old man and its pendant Portrait of a fifty-two year old woman both dated 1542 (Galleria Sabauda, Turin), and Portrait of a twenty-five year old woman, painted in 1544 (Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne).
While work still remains to be done on the oeuvre of the Master of the 1540s, it is clear that he served an important role in the local market for portraits. His patrons were the merchants who conducted trade in what was then the financial center of Europe, men and women who wanted their successes commemorated in an understated way and without aristocratic pretension. The Master of the 1540s conveyed the status of his sitters with the perfect combination of restraint and confidence and one can only hope that with further research his name will be discovered.
Portrait of a bearded man descended in the family of Baron Raoul Kuffner, the patron, and later husband, of the noted art deco painter Tamara de Lempicka.