Collection M. Schwarz, Berlin; By whom sold (anonymously), Munich, Hugo Helbing, 21-24 May 1935, lot 45 (reproduced plate 13), as by the Meister der Statthalterin Maria von Ungarn; Private collection, United Kingdom; Art Trade, London (1954); Private collection, United Kingdom.
When this small portrait recently came to the surface, its appearance was dark and dirty, but it could be made out that the sitter must have been a nobleman, wearing a chain and carrying a rather beautiful dagger. His head, in comparison to the rest of his body rather large, is crowned with a hat with pins, rather similar to the hat Christian II of Denmark wears on the portrait Michael Sittow painted of him in 1514 or 1515.1 The outlook of the sitter’s face is stern and powerful, he was certainly no ordinary nobleman. Unfortunately, the sitter could not be identified as yet, but since his features are so outspoken, I regard it as not unlikely that his identity may once be established, since most noblemen were portrayed more than once and every now and then they can be identified.
The portrait has been painted on a single oak panel and therefore may have originated in the Netherlands, France or the Lower Rhine area, which is not really surprising. The picture still holds its original size, indicated by the unpainted edges around the painted surface, but two strips, less than a centimetre wide, have been added to the left and right. These strips may have been added when the portrait received another, engaged, frame. The thin line of gold around the painting’s edge, especially well visible at the rounded top, are probably indication of an engaged gilded frame.
During the recent restoration of the painting the surface dirt was removed, just as some old retouchings and the yellowed varnish was thinned down. The result was staggering, since there is hardly anything of the original paint surface lost; just a few minor cracks appeared to have been filled with retouchings that were subsequently removed and retouched again.2 The present appearance is one of serene beauty and the condition is exactly what one hopes for in an early 16th Century painting, but hardly ever is able to obtain.
The painting was examined with the aid of infrared reflectography and an X-radiography was made as well.3 A first glance at the IRR mosaic reveals powerful brush strokes, especially in the area of the face. This is called “streaking” and is an indication of the use of limited amounts of black paint used in preparing the surface underneath the underdrawing and paint layer with a thick brush. In this case there is not much doubt that this amount of black pigment was extremely limited, since northern painters in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century normally did not make use of coloured grounds. The fact that the underdrawing can be read very clearly is another indication that the artist must have had an almost white ground in front of him before he started sketching the contours of the portrait.
The underdrawing itself has been applied with a dry material comprising bone black, probably black chalk. As is clearly visible, the draughtsman just set up the contours of the head and body, face, nose, eyes, chin and hands, in a very simple, loose and straightforward manner, roughly indicating where all these elements should find their place. The artist therefore left no detailed guidelines for painting the sitter’s face, his clothes and his hands. It is therefore not strange at all that many corrections can be found between this drawn lay-out and the final result in paint.4 No doubt these detailed guidelines were pinned down in a preliminary drawing the painter would keep close at hand when painting in the sitter’s portrait. Unfortunately, no such drawing has survived, but that is to be expected, since hardly any portrait drawings from the Northern Renaissance have survived, a few noticeable exceptions left aside, like Albrecht Dürer, Lucas van Leyden, Hans Holbein the Younger and Jean Clouet.5
As the X-radiograph shows, no pentimenti are visible, stating that the painter indeed must have had a very detailed modello in front of him, a drawn portrait, probably done from life. What it does present, however, is the grain structure of the oak support, an indication that the ground must have contained lead white, which is confirmed by the fact that “streaking” can be observed in the X-radiograph as well, not in the face, of course, but especially in the black hat and dress, showing the traces of lead white in the broad brush strokes. The ground, therefore, must have been a light greyish white. A paint sample would most certainly confirm this.
The painting is unpublished and never received a satisfactory attribution, despite its high quality. The first time the picture surfaced, at the 1935 sale, Max J. Friedländer suggested an attribution to the Master of Mary of Hungary, an anonymous artist believed to be the court painter of the Regentess of the Habsburg Netherlands. Much later this hand was linked to William Scrots (active 1537-1553), to whom the picture was apparently attributed in 1980, as is confirmed by a photograph at the RKD in The Hague.6 However, there is no reason to contemplate on an attribution to Scrots, Holbein’s successor as court painter to Henry VIII, or, for that matter, to any other English painter. Recently, Till Holger Borchert suggested two possibilities for an attribution, Michael Sittow or Joos van Cleve.7 Although an attribution to the former, one of Europe’s most underestimated portrait painters, would be sensational, he is most certainly not the painter of this portrait. Sittow’s oeuvre has recently been redefined by Matthias Weniger and his present corpus of only twelve autonomous paintings present us with a clearly defined, highly refined portrait painter that relied very strongly on draughtsmanship.8 Indeed, comparison with Sittow’s Portrait of Christian II of Denmark or his stunning Portrait of Don Diego de Guevara in the National Gallery of Art in Washington show a painter with a finer and dryer brush, still with one leg in the 15th Century Bruges tradition we know from the paintings by Hans Memling and Gerard David.
Not so this Portrait of a bearded man. The brush strokes are much more fluid and painterly than the technique we know from the Bruges painters. I do think Till Borchert was right in suggesting Joos van Cleve as the maker of this powerful portrait. The composition, the proportions of the sitter’s head in relation to his body do suggest a date to c. 1515, comparable to the Portrait of an unknown man in Enschede, one of a pair.9 However, I do think that the Portrait of a bearded man is particularly close to another portrait from Joos’s hand, the Portrait of a man with a rosary in Kassel, not only because of his fancy hat with pins, but because of the comparable brushwork. That portrait should be dated to c. 1518, as has been suggested by Cécile Scailliérez.10 A third picture that compares well to the Portrait of a bearded man is the Berlin Portrait of a young nobleman, dated to 1525 in the Aachen catalogue, but in my view probably a few years earlier, around 1523.11 The presentation of both paintings is quite similar, as is the painting technique of the sleeves. Nevertheless I believe that, on basis of the small size of the painting and the typical proportions mentioned above, our Portrait of a bearded man should be dated to c. 1515, as the Enschede pendants, perhaps one or two years later.
An interesting additional argument for attributing this portrait to Joos van Cleve is his method of preparation. Although hardly any autonomous portraits by Joos van Cleve have been examined and documented with the aid of infrared reflectography, there is hardly ever much underdrawing to discover in the faces, usually just a few lines.12 Much better documented and published are the many donor portraits Joos van Cleve painted on his altarpieces and these have been prepared in exactly the same manner as our Portrait of a bearded man. Good examples can be found in the so called “large” Adoration of the Magi in Dresden from c. 1517-18, where the donor, the Genoese merchant Oberto de Lazzari, has been prepared in exactly the same way as our bearded man, roughly outlining the contours of the face, the chin, as well as a few additional contours for the nose and eyes. Although there are several other examples, one specific altarpiece Joos van Cleve painted for a Genoese church, the Santa Maria della Pace, displays several portraits, not only of the donor Niccolò Bellogio and his spouse Francischetta de Marco, but the self portrait of the artist as well, on the Predella with the Last Supper.13 Again, the preparation of all three portraits was minimal, with just a few lines to position the heads, nose, eyes and mouth (figs. 15-17). Joos van Cleve no doubt made detailed drawings of the faces of the sitters and used those to paint in their portraits in the altarpiece. For his own face he may have used a mirror instead.
However, no portrait drawings can be attributed to Joos van Cleve with certainty; the red chalk drawing in Edinburgh is most likely a copy.14 I do think that Joos, like his contemporaries Hans Holbein the Younger and Jean Clouet, kept his portrait studies together, in a portfolio. With Holbein and Clouet, both court painters, this proved to be lucky, since many of their drawings survived, ending up in the English and French royal collections. Joos van Cleve’s drawings, however, went lost. There may have been more than one reason for keeping these drawings together. It is possible that Joos van Cleve re-used some of these drawings, when he had to paint a sitter for the second time, as he did with Stefano Raggio, the donor of the triptych with the Adoration of the Magi, the only altarpiece still in situ, in the San Donato, once again in Genoa.15 His portrait on the left wing was certainly based on a drawing, as can be judged from the IRR mosaic of the triptych’s left wing. No doubt the drawing was used before, this time for an autonomous portrait, now in the Palazzo Spinola in Genoa.
Streaking, as seen in the IRR mosaic of the portrait, is unusual in Early Netherlandish and German Painting – and therefore with Joos, too – since in these times painters made use of a preparatory layer of lead white, making it easier to set up an underdrawing in carbon black. However, there are a few comparable examples known, only in the Reinhold Altarpiece from 1513 in Warsaw traces of streaking can be seen in the IRR mosaic of the Baptism of Christ, on the spot where Christ’s face in the underdrawing has been removed by Joos van Cleve during the production process. However, it may be that further research on his portraits will reveal other examples of streaking, especially since it was not necessary to make a detailed underdrawing on the preparatory layer, since the painter made use of a detailed drawing on paper.
In conclusion, the sitter on this superb and powerful Portrait of a bearded man may not yet have been identified, its painter is. The picture should be attributed to Antwerp’s most prolific portrait painter, Joos van der Beke, called Van Cleve, painted in his early years, probably between 1515 and 1517. The attribution is based on stylistic comparison with the artist’s autonomous and donor portraits and on his working practice, visualized with the aid of Infrared Reflectography.
Peter van den Brink
1 Matthias Weniger, Sittow, Morros, Juan de Flandes. Drei Maler aus dem Norden am Hof Isabellas von Kastilien, Kiel 2011, pp. 79-82, no. 7. This portrait can nowadays be admired in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen.
2 These cracks may have been the result of the cradle that was on the back of the painting, but was removed during restoration in London, in December 2012 and January 2013.
3 The data were gathered in London, by Art Access & Research, on 11 February 2013.
4 The drawn contours of the hat tell us that it was meant to be bigger than the actually painted hat.
5 The large amount of detailed portrait drawings Hans Holbein the Younger produced, were meant as working drawings for his painted portraits. They were not sold, but were kept together in his portfolio. After his death the drawings ended up with his employer, the king of England, Henry VIII, who survived his court painter by a few years. Most of Holbein’s drawings still remain in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. The drawings of Jean Clouet followed a similar path. They now remain in the Musée Condé in Chantilly. Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Leyden were not specifically portrait painters and many of the drawings they produced of friends or people they met when travelling, were never meant as preliminary drawings, let alone work sheets. These drawings were given away (to the sitters) or sold, but they did not remain in the artist’s possession.
6 On the back of the photograph, the name De Gritz can be read. This is an indication that someone may have considered the Antwerp-born painter John de Critz the Elder (1551/52 – 1642) to have been responsible for having painted the portrait.
7 Oral communication with the author.
8 Weniger, op. cit. note 1.
9 On Joos van Cleve as a portrait painter, see Cécile Scailliérez, “Die Porträtkunst Joos van Cleves“, in Peter van den Brink (ed.), Joos van Cleve. Leonardo des Nordens, Exh. Cat. Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen 2011, pp. 87-111. Scailliérez dates the two portraits in Enschede to c. 1515 (ibid., pp. 94-95, figs. 68-69, cat. nos. 44-45), unlike John Hand, who puts them five years later (John O. Hand, Joos van Cleve. The Complete Paintings, New Haven & London 2004, pp. 64-67, figs. 67A-B, cat. no. 30). Personally I think Cécile Scailliérez is correct in her early dating of the two portraits.
10 Scailliérez, op. cit. note 9, pp. 93-94, fig. 66. Hand dates the portrait two years later, to c. 1520 (Hand, op. cit. note 9, pp. 130-131, cat. no. 31).
11 Scailliérez, op. cit. note 9, p. 98, fig. 73, cat. no. 54.
12 Micha Leeflang, ‚Uyt nemende Schilder van Antwerpen’. Joos van Cleve: atelier, productie en werkmethoden, Diss. Groningen University 2007, pp. 267-271, nos. 116, 117, 118, 119, 121, 123, 125, 128. Several portraits have been examined with the aid of IRR, some have been documented, but none of these IRR mosaics have been published, however. During the Joos van Cleve exhibition in Aachen the large Portrait of a bearded nobleman in a private collection (cat. no. 55) was examined and documented by Margreet Wolters and Micha Leeflang, as were two wings with donors in a British collection (cat. no. 9).
13 The altarpiece is in the Musée du Louvre in Paris. See Maria Clelia Galassi & Gianluca Zanelli, “Joos van Cleve und Genua”, in Peter van den Brink (ed.), Joos van Cleve. Leonardo des Nordens, Exh. Cat. Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen 2011, pp. 78-81, fig. 50.
14 Peter van den Brink, „Einführung: Der (un)sichtbare Künstler“, in Peter van den Brink (ed.), Joos van Cleve. Leonardo des Nordens, Exh. Cat. Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen 2011, pp. 16-17.
15 On Stefano Raggio, see Galassi & Zanelli, op. cit. note 13, pp. 66-69.