The known facts of Hans Memling’s (ca. 1435–94) life are few. He was likely born in Seligenstadt, Germany, and almost certainly spent time in Rogier van der Weyden’s workshop in Brussels before moving to Bruges, perhaps early in 1465. As far as we know, he continued to work in Bruges until the end of his life.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are no confirmed portraits of the artist. It has been suggested that an elderly couple watching the action in one panel of his St. Ursula Casket—a reliquary housed in Bruges—represents Memling and his wife, but we will never know for certain whether the assertion is correct. It could be merely a projection of our desire to grasp the artist’s face. Then again, if it is a self-portrait, what is it doing there? Self-portraiture highlights the chief paradox of portraiture in general, which is that we tend to be far less interested in the identity of the person depicted than we are in the person who made it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are no confirmed portraits of the artist.

Is Memling’s Portrait of a Man with a Coin of the Emperor Nero somehow made more compelling if we attach to it the name Bernardo Bembo, the Venetian envoy? Hardly. Oscar Wilde put it more succinctly when he said, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” In this spirit, we can take the recent exhibition of Memling’s portraits at the Frick Collection as a sort of composite self-portrait, a mosaic of clues—of the one hundred or so extant works by the artist, thirty are portraits.1 Nearly two-thirds of these have been brought together at the Frick, making this exhibition the most comprehensive examination of Memling’s portraiture yet mounted. Although it is not included in the Frick exhibition, the self-portrait panel on the St. Ursula Casket shows a man staring out as if at the viewer—for he would have used a mirror in painting himself—while the armored knights and soldiers around him absorb themselves in the murder of the eponymous saint and in a battle occurring off to the left. Middle-aged, the individual identified as the artist seems melancholic and not especially attractive; his hair is gray and he wears contemporary, though unfashionable, red clothes.

A hired hand like any portraitist, Memling tended to idealize his subjects, if only subtly: for example, the healthy and highlighted curls that enliven the rotund face of the Brussels Portrait of a Man Before a Landscape (c. 1470–75). Yet Memling’s portraits strike us less for their idealizing than for their realism. The portraits are so lifelike one would not be surprised to be introduced to one of his fair-skinned clients at a party or to pass one on the street. Indeed, Memling stands out in the history of the portrait both for his innovations and for the intriguing ways he harnessed illusionism and visual tricks in the service of realism.

His simplest device is found less often in the portraits of donors in religious works, such as the altarpieces or The Virgin and Child with St Anthony Abbot and Donor panel (1472), than in the independent portraits. For the latter, Memling preferred the seven-eighths view to the more common three-quarters view. Compare, for instance, the London Portrait of a Young Man at Prayer (c. 1475–80), which employs the three-quarters view, to the Uffizi’s Portrait of a Man with a Letter (c. 1475). The frontal orientation, as in the Uffizi portrait, contributes to the picture’s realism; it seems more relaxed and less stylized. What is surprising is that, despite the actual and extraordinarily familiar look of the portraits, Memling was in fact given to distorting his subjects so as to achieve lifelike effects.

As Lorne Campbell points out in an instructive catalogue essay, “There is a family resemblance among Memling’s portraits, for he tends always to enlarge eyes and mouths, to elongate noses and to smooth away angularities of contour.” In most of the half-lenghth portraits, he enlarges the sitter’s face and shrinks the top of the head, thereby focusing attention on the “most interesting parts of the face.” The cranium of the person in the early Portrait of a Man in a Red Hat (c. 1465–70), for instance, seems almost lopped off, as the red brim and fringe of blond hair frame the man’s expressively lined eyes, rouged cheeks, and set, though not unsensual, mouth. Here too, one can discern another typical distortion: the eyes look off in different directions. Says Campbell, “the slightly diverging gaze can give a certain mobility of expression: the face will seem to change its aspect as the spectator focuses on one eye or the other.”

Distortion is certainly not the only means the artist had for mastering verisimilitude; they conjured all manner of tricks, trompe l’oeil being a period favorite. The Portrait of a Young Woman (“Sybil”), dated 1480, is key in this regard because it is one of the few works with an intact original frame. Neither the woman’s identity nor the function of the portrait has been determined, although the fact that it is inscribed with a date suggests that, like the Portrait of Gilles Joye (1472), it served as an epitaph or commemorative picture. Shown in half-length against a dark background, the woman wears a purple dress with a fur collar, a jeweled crucifix, and a transparent veil that falls over her pulled-back hair, and seven rings on her hands, all suggesting a wealthy Bruges resident. The catalogue states that hers is a “three-quarters” view, but it clearly employs Memling’s more common seven-eighths view: the bridge of her nose does not touch her right tear duct; her left eye is slightly larger than the right, because it is closer to us; and the nose itself hasn’t been flattened abnormally into a profile to emphasize the turning of the face. Most strikingly, the fingers of her left hand rest on the actual frame, taking a characteristic trompe-l’oeil effect of Memling’s, hands resting on a counter or frame, to an extreme degree. In the Portrait of Gilles Joye, by comparison, which also has an intact frame, the cleric joins his hands in prayer, with the fingertips pressed, as it were, against the frame edge, which appears by trompe l’oeil as though engraved.

If the Sybil portrait did, in fact, function as a memorial work, it seems worth considering the role of the fingers: the illusion draws the woman from the fictive plane of the picture into the “real” world of the frame and viewer, while at the same time the portrait preserves in the world the illusory image of a woman who no longer exists. The trompe l’oeil both insists on the actuality of what’s depicted and reinforces the sense of loss. Likewise, I would argue that the most striking feature of Portrait of a Man with an Arrow is not the arrow itself but the recently discovered fly, which stands between the man’s thumb and his white shirt and which would have originally stood on the frame itself. As an emblem of death, decay, or transience, the fly reinforces the meaning of the attribute, while at the same time establishing a living presence in a portrait of someone who is now gone.

In his adoption of trompe l’oeil, Memling probably followed Van Eyck and Petrus Christus.

In his adoption of trompe l’oeil, Memling probably followed Van Eyck and Petrus Christus. He does, however, seem to have innovated the use of the landscape background. Apparently, examples prior to Memling’s of independent half-length portraits with the sitter placed either before an open landscape or near a window opening onto a landscape are rare or non-existent. As Paula Nuttall remarks, “Whether or not Memling should be credited with inventing this distinctive portrait type, the roots of which may lie in devotional works such as Rogier’s Braque Triptych and Jan van Eyck’s ‘plateau compositions,’ he certainly made it his own.” What’s more, the example of his landscape backgrounds had a profound influence on later Italian painting, from Perugino to Botticelli and Leonardo, an effect aided by the fact that many of Memling’s clients were Italians who brought his work south.

Like trompe l’oeil, landscape backgrounds were part of Memling’s repertoire and could be inserted into portraits of standardized sizes. Still, one might notice that, while he delighted in virtuoso detail, Memling was not overly concerned with realism in his landscapes that form backgrounds to the portraits. Here too there is a certain amount of standardization as well as stylizing. His most obvious habit is the use of puff-ball trees—which look like no tree I’ve ever seen—with stippled highlights around the edges, a formulaic anti-realist strategy that might have been meant to set off, or emphasize, the highly achieved realism of the faces. That said, it occurred to me that the standardized backgrounds could be helpful in the attribution of certain of the works. For example, contention exists, even within the Frick catalogue, over the attribution of the Montreal Portrait of a Young Man. Campbell calls it “more distorted than anything by Memling,” and the immediate evidence backs up the claim: the face is excessively elongated, the brow tiny, and the proportions seem off. Yet, the catalogue notes state that “the pose of the man, shown head and shoulders in three-quarters view before a landscape, is typical for Memling, who may be credited with its invention.” But it goes on to question that very landscape, worrying over the high horizon line, “which runs along the height of the man’s forehead instead of the neck as common with Memling.” Interestingly enough, the facing page presents the wing portraits of Willem Moreel and Barbara van Vlaenderberch, both of which show horizon lines running through the sitters’ foreheads, and the same can be said of the Portrait of an Elderly Couple in Berlin.

Look more closely at the background of the Montreal young man, and you will spy (though they’re not visible in the catalogue) two swans, one with a curved neck and one with a straight neck. These swans also occur in the Portrait of a Man with a Coin of Emperor Nero and the Florence Portrait of a Man with a Letter, where in each case the sitter holds an attribute in his left hand, just as in the contested portrait.

Whether such minutiae constitute proof of authorship is open to discussion, and the identity of the sitter will likely never be disclosed. But the converse is more instructive: the proofs of authorship, those telling details and distortions we adduce as evidence, tell us much about Memling and his identity as an artist.

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  1.   “Memling’s Portraits” opened at The Frick Collection, New York, on October 12 and remains on view through December 31, 2005. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 4, on page 61
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