First published in 1920 by Ludwig Baldass, this rare and beautifully preserved panel is one of only seven signed portraits by Jacob van Utrecht, whose narrow corpus, as established by Max J. Friedländer in 1941, comprises 37 works. A key work in the artist's small surviving oeuvre, it also constitutes as a document about one of Lübeck's most prominent 16th-century citizens.
Born in Utrecht where he probably trained, Jacob van Utrecht is recorded in 1506 as a master in Antwerp, then a busy artistic and trading center. The influx of artists into the city generated a competitive environment, making it difficult for a young master to attain immediate fame. Possibly for this reason Jacob van Utrecht moved to the Holy Roman Empire, first Cologne, around 1515, where he painted two altarpiece wings (Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum; Berchtesgaden, Schlossmuseum), and then to the North German town of Lübeck, where he is documented from 1519 to 1530. Lübeck was then the capital of the Hanseatic League, a federation of cities controlling trade across the Baltic and North sea regions. Jacob soon established himself as the leading painter there, carrying out religious commissions for local churches and providing patricians with spirited portraits. His admittance in 1519 to the Leonhard Brotherhood, a prestigious merchant confraternity, testifies to his success, and also suggests that he may have been a picture dealer. It must further have gained him portrait commissions; indeed, the present sitter was a member of the brotherhood.
Nicknamed the 'Lübeck Fugger', in reference to the great Augsburg banker Jacob Fugger, Matthias Mulich was one of the most prominent Lübeck merchants of his day. Originally from Nüremberg, he embodied a new generation of Hanseatic tradesmen from Southern Germany. One of four brothers active in Lübeck, he was the most successful, settling there in 1490. He bought thirteen houses in the town and owned three estates in the region. A surviving account book, listing the purchases he made at the Frankfurt Lent fair in 1495, provides a fascinating insight into his dealings: consisting mostly of luxury goods, it records elaborate jewellery -- pearls, brooches, gold rings -- drinking vessels, precious Northern Italian cloth, especially velvet, weapons, spices and Lombard paper. Matthias supplied the noble and the powerful with these precious items, from the dukes of Schleswig and Mecklembourg to the King of Denmark himself, who bestowed on him an estate in Odesloe as a reward for his services (for Matthias Mulich's biography, see Dollinger, op. cit., pp. 178-179). In the present portrait, the sitter's black velvet bonnet adorned with pearls, velvet doublet, gold embroidered white chemise, richly brocaded fur-lined mantle, and gold chain and elaborate pendant - all depicted with the utmost care by the artist - certainly allude to his trade in such sumptuous products.
Mulich's social status in Lübeck was further enhanced by two advantageous marriages: to Katharina von Stiten, whom he married in 1515, and Katharina Kortsack in 1518. The griffon pendant prominently displayed on his chest refers to his second wife's crest and may have been a way to advertise the transfer of wealth and prestige linked to this union.
The sitter's identity was discussed by J.J. de Mesquita in 1941 when he recognized the coat-of-arms. We are grateful to Jan van Helmont of Leuven for confirming this identification as well as for identifying the crests underneath as those of Matthias Mulich's wives.