Invested with a contemplative power that radiates beyond the small panel, the painter of the present portrait infused in his sitter the highest qualities of refined naturalism and nobility that came to define early northern portraiture.
While the origin of the artist has hitherto been a subject of debate, once erroneously attributed to Quentin Massys, this portrait clearly reveals a knowledge of Flemish prototypes in the sitter’s complex and individual characterisation. Dendrochronological analysis of the panel has revealed a felling date of circa 1459, and combined with stylistic considerations and the fashion of the costume, places the date of execution in the 1480s. Indeed, the rendering of the sitter’s features and hair, along with its compositional format, bears great semblance to a portrait previously in the Woëlmont collection at Ammersoyen Castle, which itself has never been identified but has historically been attributed to an anonymous French or Burgundian master of circa 1480-1500 (fig. 1; see G. Ring, A century of French painting 1400-1500, London, 1949, p. 229, no. 237). The prevalent style in the far-reaching Burgundian territories in the fifteenth century depended on painters in Flanders and Brabant, with Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden pioneering the modern idea of portraiture as a record of an individual’s character. In the subtly blended flesh tones that describe the smooth sheen of the skin, the present artist betrays the influence of Hans Memling, adopting the master’s intelligent balance of objective observation and idealisation. For the hands, he clearly drew on Rogierian models, inspired by their elegant grace and exaggerated angles, with long, tapered and curving fingers, leading to this picture’s previous attribution to the master’s school of painting. The conspicuous smallness of the present sitter’s hands further reveals a knowledge of the special significance that Jan van Eyck placed on hands in his portrait painting, here reducing their natural size so as not to detract attention from the face.
Lorne Campbell, to whom we are grateful, has suggested that the artist was of possible French origin, tentatively comparing it to two portraits by the Master of Saint Jean de Luz at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon (private communication, June 2020, on the basis of photographs). Till-Holger Borchert, to whom we are also grateful, sees in the work analogies to paintings by the Master of Saint Giles (private communication, June 2020, on the basis of photographs), looking to the faces and hands of the kneeling figures surrounding the altar in the artist’s Mass at Saint Denis (London, National Gallery).
In its original setting, the size, format and composition of the present picture suggest it would have been painted for private devotion, with the intent to express, in perpetuity, the prayer of the sitter that would exceed in perfection any actual prayer he may have performed. With his fingers inserted between the pages of his prayer book, gazing with a sense of interruption, he is represented in a moment of focused devotion in which the different stages of contemplation are re-enacted, from the physical vision of the written prayer to the spiritual vision of the divine. Personal piety and a devotion to the Virgin Mary were a key focus of Christianity of the period, with the demand for Marian images fuelled by the heightened importance attached to the Virgin Mary’s role as intercessor for the Christian faithful. Private devotion, as the most noble piety, shortened the distance between the worshipper and the worshiped, and had at its cornerstone devotio moderna, the fourteenth-century religious movement that stressed meditation and the inner life. Such new practices in private devotional prayer thus gave rise to new forms of commemoration, merging the world of words and the world of images.
Painted in the heraldically inferior left, the present portrait is unlikely to have been paired with a portrait of the sitter’s wife, with the heraldic left being the traditional position occupied by women in portrait diptychs. With his face bathed in a beatific light coming from his right, the sitter may have faced a half-length representation of a devotional subject, probably the Virgin and Child, as part of a devotional diptych, a pictorial type within early Netherlandish art for which Rogier van der Weyden was considered the originator. Similar to van der Weyden’s Diptych of Philip de Croÿ with The Virgin and Child (fig. 2; now separated between the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp and The Huntington Museum and Library, San Marino), their divine encounter would have carried the message of the sitter’s ultimate spiritual goal: the meeting and union with Christ.
While the portrait includes no armorial bearings or specific indications of the sitter’s identity, he is represented in humility, dressed in a fur-lined black doublet and black cap, consistent with the Burgundian fashion of the 1480s, clasping in his hands a red leather-bound prayer book. Yet beneath this seeming modesty lie symbols of wealth that his contemporaries would have immediately recognised. Although denoting sobriety and modesty, black cloth was the most expensive material due to both its fashionableness and the complexity of the dying process, to be afforded only by the most affluent classes. The red leather-bound prayer book, while less ostentatious than heavily illuminated Books of Hours, would have equally been viewed as an item of luxury and a symbol of the sitter’s wealth, piety and literacy, also perhaps referring to bibliophilic tendencies. With the exception of the green natural background, the prayer book is given prominence within the composition through the utilisation of the bold red cover, evoking Christ and God in the prominent red letters ‘I’ for ‘Iesus’ and ‘D’ for ‘Deus’ on its pages, and the rubric announcing the end of the prayer.
Such references to the sitter’s fashion and affluence suggest that this portrait was likely intended as both a demonstration of his piousness and a testament of his position as an erudite gentleman of privilege, with his intellectual and artistic pursuits here denoted in his patronage of both painting and manuscripts. While patrons of early Books of Hours were all members of the nobility, the rise of a prosperous bourgeoisie during the fifteenth century allowed more ordinary citizens to commission books of their own. Such devotional books were highly personal objects and could be individualised with supplemental texts, such as gospel lessons or prayers to saints. They were even more diverse in their decoration, ranging from illuminated borders and full-page pictures in Books of Hours, to a few painted initials, which could even be paid for by the initial (fig. 3). As a vehicle of learning and religion, the prayer book gave the reader a feeling of sanctified time in which they were caring for the fate of their immortal soul.
With technical and creative assurance, the artist animates the sitter’s flesh through a three-dimensional bodiliness that emerges from the green neutral background. Infrared reflectography has revealed an extraordinary wealth of detail in the execution of the face, hands and prayer book, which gives significant insight into the artist’s sophisticated mastery of capturing the sitter’s likeness (fig. 4). Rendered in a liquid medium, the eyes and profile outline are drawn in careful, staccato strokes, suggesting that the artist had laid out the sitter’s features ad vivum while slowly observing his features. While the shadows are articulated with rapid and bold hatchings, particularly around the nose, mouth and neck, the outline of the nose appears to have been adjusted from a more profile view. Indeed, upon close inspection, the artist modified the angle of the sitter’s head in the painted layer to give the impression of a more direct gaze towards the viewer, which he achieved in paint through a widening of the sitter’s neck and face beyond the underdrawing.
The importance of the hands and prayer book is made all the more apparent, with the underdrawing revealing significant alterations both in the early stages of drawing and at a later stage in the painting process: from the darkest passages of lower left corner of the panel appear curved liquid strokes, which once indicated an open cuff, suggesting that the artist had originally positioned the left hand to emerge from a frontally-viewed sleeve, revealing its fur lining. With the hand originally drawn more in profile, all of the fingers seemingly rested inside the open middle pages of the prayer book, as evidenced by the remains of drawn but unpainted fingers visible on the book’s left page. Only later in paint would the artist adjust the position of the cuff to intersect the corner with the more dynamic white diagonal of the fur, while repositioning the fourth and fifth fingers to rest on the cover of the book. To the right hand he would also add a thumb to rationalise its positioning after adjusting the collar of the doublet. In his considerations of the prayer book, the artist made adjustments to the degree of the visibility of its pages, changing its angle in the sitter’s hands from a view more tilted towards the viewer, to one slanted towards the sitter, giving them greater proximity and thus stressing his relationship to the most important societal institution: the church.
A NOTE ON THE PROVENANCE:
As Horace Walpole recorded in his celebrated Description of Strawberry Hill of 1774, this portrait, which he believed to be by Quentin Massys, had been owned by his father, Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, from whose prodigious collection he inherited, or acquired, a number of pictures, mostly of relatively modest scale. This panel was unquestionably the finest of these.
Sir Robert's position as Prime Minister from 1715 until 1742 meant not only that he held the reins of power for over a quarter of a century, but also that he was able to be a patron of the arts and a collector of European rank. His picture collection was initially assembled in his London residences, including Scotland Yard and Downing Street, but after the completion of his ultimate achievement, the construction of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, much of his collection was concentrated there: described in his son Horace’s Aedes Walpolianæ, the Houghton pictures were sold en bloc in 1779 to the Tsarina Catherine the Great, by the 3rd Earl of Orford.
Horace Walpole, who himself deplored the sale, created at Strawberry Hill one of the most influential mansions of the mid-eighteenth century, in which architecture was closely complemented by his collections, and in which pictures had a dominant role. This portrait was placed in the Holbein Chamber, an early example of a room being named after a specific artist. A substantial number of the portraits and drawings were attributed to Hans Holbein II, whom Walpole revered as the first major portraitist to work in England, and were complemented by copies after the artist. In addition to this panel, the hang included what Walpole seems to have assumed to be the prime version of Gossaert’s Children of Christian II of Denmark and arguably the finest of his sixteenth-century British portraits, the Eworth double portrait of Lady Dacre and her son, Gregory Fiennes, 10th Baron Dacre, then wrongly thought to be of the Duchess of Suffolk and her second husband, Adrian Stokes by Lucas de Heere, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London.