Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
Portrait of a Man
Though born near Frankfurt, Memling probably trained in the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels, before in 1465 becoming a citizen of Bruges, where he worked for the rest of his life. He built up a strong network among the European aristocracy, thereby generating a steady stream of work. No record exists of this commission and there is no clear clue within the portrait to identify the man. In his portrait style Hans Memling created a means of expressing not only the individual personalities of his sitters but also a sense of idealised beauty.
As in this example, Memling sometimes placed single figures with their heads turned at a seven-eighths angle rather than the more typical three-quarters view. The result is a distinctive almost full-frontal pose, creating an engaging illusion of the proximity of the sitter to the viewer, which is particularly effective in works with a plain-coloured, rather than a landscape, background.
In order to emphasise the most prominent aspects of a face - the eyes, nose and mouth - Memling often elongated the overall shape. Consequently, the scale of the face is not entirely true to life and the eyes, with their distinctive green irises, are slightly divergent, adding a sense of movement. The hair is immaculate, curling strictly to the shoulders and perfectly framing his face. The resolutely turned-down corners of the mouth imbue the sitter with a seriousness bordering on severity. Memling created the illusion of an even skin tone by carefully building up layers of thin glazes to give a pure porcelain-like quality.
The man’s simple dark tunic is worn over a grey collar fastened at the neck with three strips of cord. He gestures to a pendant hanging from a button on his tunic, a plaited cord emblem with two gold-embroidered material strips set with pearls. The significance of this ornament is not known. It has been suggested that this portrait commemorates the swearing of an oath. It is certainly not a devotional image because the man points so markedly towards himself rather than clasping his hands in prayer. It is possible that the portrait marked the sitter’s initiation into a confraternity or society or was intended as a gift to a prospective bride. In either case, the gesture indicates a hope of acceptance.
Catalogue entry adapted from Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting, London, 2007