Art December 2005
The many faces of Memling
On Hans Memling’s portraits at the Frick.
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...
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