This commanding portrait of the imperial courtier Jean Wyts displays all the characteristics of the finest portraits by Ambrosius Benson, one of the leading painters in sixteenth-century Bruges. Born in Lombardy, probably in Milan, after whose patron saint Ambrogio he was named, Benson crossed the Alps and settled in Bruges where he was granted citizenship in 1518 and entered the painters’ guild the following year. This move was probably motivated by the promise of commercial and artistic opportunities in a city where prosperous merchants from all over Europe congregated and where the great early Netherlandish painting tradition had been initiated in the preceding century under the aegis of Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. In Benson’s days, this prestigious tradition was being continued by Gérard David. It was in David’s thriving studio that Benson worked upon his arrival in Bruges. However, their collaboration was short-lived and ended with a notorious dispute and trial regarding the ownership of a chest containing designs, drawings and patterns.
Established as an independent master, Benson went on to produce a number of devotional images inspired by David and his contemporaries. Yet it is in the field of portraiture that he produced what many consider his best works and where his individual artistic personality is mostly felt. This picture displays several distinctive features of Benson’s portraiture: the soft modelling of the sitter’s face, the subtle treatment of light, the impressive attention to textures and the green background on which the sitter’s shadow is cast. These elements recur in some of his most accomplished portraits, such as the Portrait of George, 3rd Baron Hastings and 1st Earl of Huntingdon (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique) and the Portrait of a Gentleman (Compton Verney). In each of these pictures, the sitters wear rather similar black berets with flaps covering their ears.
Jean Wyts was a prominent member of the Hapsburg-Burgundian court at Malines, serving the two successive Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and his grandson Charles V. He is identified by his coat-of-arms pinned to the wall, which is repeated on the enamelled ring he wear on his right index. His identity is further confirmed by an inscription that appears on a copy after this work painted around 1600 and now in Kasteel Amerongen near Utrecht: ‘Jehan Wyts, fes de Guille sr de Berenrode, Wildenburch & Wyts/ Vlit Escuier & conseiller de l’Emp. Charles Ve Watergrave Moermestre & commissarie du renouvellement des Magistrats de Flandre etc’. The inscription records some of the sitter’s lordships and most important appointments, notably that of Privy Councillor of Charles V and his charge as Watergrave and Moermestre (responsible for irrigation, drainage and navigable water, a crucial task considering the topography of the Netherlands). The sitter holds a prominent wand of office which suggests that the portrait may have been commissioned to commemorate one of his appointments, possibly the start of his tenure as Watergrave and Moermestre in 1520, a plausible date for this portrait. Since the copy at Kasteel Amerongen has a female portrait as pendant, it is likely that this panel originally had a companion picture, probably a portrait of his wife Barbe Vrancx.
We are grateful to Till-Holger Borchert for confirming the attribution to Benson on the basis of a photograph and for his kind assistance in preparing this note.