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Attributed to Michel Sittow (Reval, now Tallinn c. 1468-1525/6)
Attributed to Michel Sittow (Reval, now Tallinn c. 1468-1525/6)

Portrait of a gentleman, half-length, in a black hat and brown robe with a lynx collar, holding a rosary

Attributed to Michel Sittow (Reval, now Tallinn c. 1468-1525/6)
Portrait of a gentleman, half-length, in a black hat and brown robe with a lynx collar, holding a rosary
oil on panel, marouflaged, arched top
13¼ x 9 in. (33.6 x 23.8 cm.)
Sale room notice
Dr. Micha Leeflang of the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht has proposed on the basis of photographs that this could be an early work by Joos van Cleve, datable to circa 1515-20 (private communication, 7 January 2011).

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Lot Essay

This early Netherlandish portrait follows a tradition established by Jan van Eyck, in which the sitter is presented close to the picture plane, with his hands resting on the fictive ledge created by the frame. The artist has painstakingly rendered each wrinkle of his face and every fold and crease surrounding his masterfully-rendered eyes. He is dressed according to the fashion of the time in a white shirt, fur-lined doublet open at the neck and a robe trimmed with lynx fur, identifying him as a prosperous individual. He holds a strand of rosary beads carved from coral, a material believed to have apotropaic properties. Reflecting the heightened importance of the cult of the Virgin, the use of rosaries had become increasingly widespread in the last quarter of the fifteenth century; here, the sitter is shown in the act of handling a Paternoster bead to facilitate his prayer. Moreover, the sitter's orientation toward his right suggests that this panel may have originally formed part of a devotional dyptich and was most likely paired with a representation of the Virgin and Child. If he was married, the sitter's wife may have also been included in a third panel, thus creating a triptych. The portrait appears to have been slightly cut down on the left side at some point and the gentleman's hat may have been extended slightly to his left to restore balance to the composition.

Born in Estonia, Michel Sittow became an itinerant court painter specializing in portraiture and small devotional paintings. By 1483, he had moved to Bruges to become an apprentice, possibly in the workshop of Hans Memling or an artist close to him. Nearly a decade later, in 1492, Sittow is recorded working in Spain, in the service of Queen Isabella of Castile and León. Upon her death in 1504, he may have worked for her son-in-law, Philip of Austria, the future King of Castile, and the following year he may have even traveled to England, as evidenced by his portraits of Henry VIII (London, National Portrait Gallery) and of a woman who has been tentatively identified as Catherine of Aragon (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). After traveling to Denmark and briefly returning to Spain, Sittow returned to Reval, where he spent the remainder of his career.

While precious few portraits by Michel Sittow survive, similarities to the present work may be found in several of his paintings. The Portrait of Diego de Guevara (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art) of circa 1515/18, which was also conceived as a devotional diptych, is imbued with the same sober, dignified atmosphere. In both paintings, one observes a comparable wispy treatment of the hair, thin downturned mouth and dedication to accurately capturing the effects of time on the face. The Portrait of a Man (The Hague, Mauritshuis) of circa 1520, which has also been linked to Sittow, is also very close to the present painting, particularly in terms of costume details and the treatment of the sitter's hands and physiognomy.

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