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Follower of Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1490
Follower of Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1490

The Virgin and Child

Follower of Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1490
The Virgin and Child
oil on panel
17 1/8 x 12 ¾ in. (43.4 x 32.3 cm.)
Jacques-Ernest Osterrieth (1826-1893), Huis Osterrieth, Antwerp, and by descent to his daughter
Florence-Félicie Osterrieth (1873-1958), Zillebeke, and by descent to her daughter
Marguerite de Vinck (1895-1964), Rhode-Sainte-Agathe, and by descent in the family to the present owner.

Lot Essay

This elegant depiction of the Virgin nursing the Christ Child was likely painted in Brussels toward the end of the 15th century. The solemn Virgin Mary, who tenderly cradles her son against her breast, is a paragon of beauty, possessing features that were considered most desirable at the time this private devotional panel was painted: golden, wavy hair, a long neck, dark eyebrows and a high forehead. Her tapering, angular fingers, as well as the characteristic tilt of her head, recall the designs of Rogier van der Weyden, and indeed, the composition can be linked with a group of paintings, all of which are presumably modeled after a design the Brussels master. Though Rogier’s prototype is lost, most scholars agree that a painting formerly in the Van Gelder Collection, Brussels, and sold at the Dorotheum, Vienna, 27 March 2003, lot 159, most faithfully reproduces the master’s composition, setting the mother and child against a gold brocade background (see C. Stroo and P Syfer-d’Olne, Flemish Primitives II. Catalogue of Early Netherlandish Painting in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels, Brussels, 1999, p. 176, fig. 89). The finest of the roughly 30 paintings belonging to this Rogerian Virgo lactans group is the Virgin and Child by Hans Memling in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, which presents the figures before an arched window, flanked by two marble columns, overlooking a landscape (ibid., pp. 170-79, no. 5, pl. 6). Infrared reflectography of the Brussels panel reveals that Memling devoted significant attention to the placing of the window’s architecture, relative to the more summary treatment of the figures, the latter of which were likely derived directly from the Rogierian model. This suggests that the architectural details and landscape were Memling’s owns invention, and it is this modified composition that was likely the source of the present work. Rogier’s design must have enjoyed wide circulation through the Netherlands in the 15th centuries, as variants were produced by several identifiable hands, including the Master of the St. Ursula Legend and the Master of the Magdalene Legend.
Of these variants, the present painting most closely resembles the Virgin and Child that was formerly in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and sold at Christie’s, New York, 5 November 1982, lot 122. In both paintings, the Virgin and Child are portrayed beneath a flamboyant gothic vault adorned with water-gilt tracery and supported by four red columns. A green cloth of honor with red fringes hangs behind the Virgin’s head, serving as a pseudo-throne. A similar textile rests on the parapet in the foreground, resembling an altar cloth, thereby alluding to the Eucharist and Christ’s future sacrifice for mankind. Though the basic design of the two paintings are the same, they are not replicas. The details of their landscapes are different (e.g., the two figures before the castle gate at right are absent in the ex-Met painting), and comparison of the handling of the Virgin’s face in each suggests that they were done by different hands. Infrared reflectography does not reveal significant underdrawing, with the exception of some pouncing visible in the proper right eye of the Virgin, the right arm of the Christ Child and the contour of his face, indicating that a preparatory cartoon was used to create the composition. Minor adjustments to the underdrawing are visible with infrared-reflectography, including the positioning of Christ’s left eye, which was raised slightly, and the counter of his left arm.
Most of the surviving variants of this composition are weaker than the present version, and often carry questionable attributions to artist such as the Master of the Embroidered Foliage and the Master of the Gold Brocade. These include those in the Musée de Picardie, Amiens; Pedralbes monasterio, Barcelona; Musée de Beaux-Arts, Douai; formerly with Jacques Bacri, Paris; formerly Guy Stein collection, Paris; formerly Paul Bottenwieser collection, Berlin; and private collection, exhibited at the Altona Museum, Hamburg, 1914, ; as well as a panel that recently sold at Hermitage, Monaco, on 24 November 2018.
Although it is missing its original frame, the painting’s small scale suggests that it was intended for private devotion. Most likely, it would have formed a diptych with a panel representing a donor figure who would meet the Christ Child’s gaze, much in the same way that a variant of this group, by the Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, likely formed a diptych with the Portrait of a Praying Man thought to represent Ludovico Portinari in the Johnson Collection (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; ibid., p. 174), although a configuration as a triptych, with the Virgo lactans in the center, and two donor portraits in the wings, is also plausible.

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