There is something about Hans Memling’s portraits that appeals to the contemporary sensibility; his subjects seem somehow modern, like someone we know. A Bruges museum once held a contest asking people to send in photos of individuals they knew who looked like a Memling portrait: they received thousands of entries. What is it about his portraits that seem so real? Memling was one of the most gifted portraitist of his day, even though portraits were his secondary specialty (and portraits were in fact considered a lesser art form at the time). Most of his paintings were religious: altarpieces, diptychs and triptychs for church or private devotion. Of 100 extant Memling works, only 35 are portraits. And for the most part we have no idea who they are.
For much of his career Memling worked in Bruges, which in the late 15th-century was a commercial hub of the Duchy of Burgundy and one of the richest, busiest trading ports in Europe. Memling made portraits of the town’s prominent and well-to-do – they would have to have been to afford his prices – but they were generally not aristocratic. The artist’s patrons were bankers, traders, Bruges patricians and international merchants and diplomats from Italy and Spain.
They came to Memling because, it would seem, he could capture something other painters couldn’t; he had a rare talent for reproducing a physical likeness but he also captured something of the character or individuality of the sitter, as he does here with this portrait of an old woman.
Her principal characteristic seems to be a quiet dignity. She is posed in the forefront of the picture frame filling the entire panel. With heavy lidded, down-turned eyes, firmly shut, thin lips and her hands folded primly before her, she is the picture of demure sensibility. Her carefully starched wimple and simple yet fur-trimmed dress suggest she is prosperous, but not ostentatiously so. She is something of an ideal: the image of the frugal, virtuous, submissive spouse. And indeed Memling’s portraits were about presenting a public face: displaying the sitter’s status and wealth as well as the sober piety expected in bourgeois Bruges society.
However no detail escaped Memling’s notice: with great precision he delineated each hair and wrinkle and in the process captured something deeper: there is some sadness about this woman, especially her eyes. What is her story?
We don’t know. She was probably the wife of a man of about the same age whose portrait is today in Berlin (Gemäldegalerie). They were once the two halves of a double portrait of a couple set in a loggia set before a landscape. It is unknown when or why the pictures were separated. Their identity is unknown but a mention in a 1521 document of a double portrait by Memling in a Venetian collection has led to speculation that the couple were Italian, as were many of Memling’s clients in thriving, multi-cultural Bruges. But with no markers of nationality, it is impossible to know.
Almost all of Memling’s portraits were done on a similar scale, using the same format, suggesting he probably worked form a template, which usually included a bucolic landscape in a background. The latter was something Memling may have picked up from his master, Rogier van der Weyden with whom he was apprenticed in Brussels. Though born in Germany, Memling was trained as a thoroughly Flemish artist: his realism and directness were inspired by van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus. But his uniqueness comes from his interest in honest naturalism, which shunned idealism preferring to create a real human presence in his art.
1470–75 Piero della Francesca: The Nativity, London, National Gallery
1471–73 Dieric Bouts: The Justice of Emperor Otto III, Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts
1475 Antonello da Messina: The Crucifixion, Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum