Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
This portrait forms one of a pair in the Royal Collection, however the images are not universally accepted as that of the artist, Joos van Cleve, and his second wife, Katlijne van Mispelteeren. This difficulty partly stems from the fact that they were identified by Abraham Van der Doort in 1639/40 as depicting ‘Sotton Cleve’ and his wife. Van der Doort seems to be confusing Joos with his son Cornelis (1520-67), known as ‘Sotto’ or ‘foolish’ Cleve, apparently because he went mad towards the end of his life. Others made the same mistake, writing as if Joos, not Cornelis, were ‘Sotto’ Cleve. A series of famous artists by Dominicus Lampsonius, published in Antwerp in 1572, included an engraving of Joos van Cleve, clearly based on this portrait. The short poem underneath translates:
‘See, among the great artists of the Netherlands/Our Muse shall surely not remain silent about you, Joos/Who is no small jewel of the elevated art of painting. /Yours and your son’s art would have brought you good fortune/If you, poor man, had remained but sound of mind.’
Karel van Mander repeats the error when, in his life of Joos, he relates that the artist suffered insanity whilst visiting England around the time of Philip II of Spain’s marriage to Mary I (that is in 1554, fourteen years after his death). The question of identity is confused by another possible self portrait by Joos van Cleve, painted around 1520 (Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid), which some have argued shows a different man. The Royal Collection portrait depicts a much older man, the beard adding to the sense of advanced years and endowing him with an air of worldly wisdom. The face shape, the contour of the nose and the colour and form of the eyes are, however, consistent with those in the Thyssen portrait, and the reddish-brown colour of the beard is the same tone as the wavy shoulder-length hair of the younger man. If we bear in mind that the portrait depicts a widower embarking on his second marriage, it is not surprising that the portrait has a different feel to it, but comparison of the faces alone is consistent with the author of both self portraits being Joos van Cleve.
The most striking aspect of the panels is the arrangement of the hands. The man addresses his wife and is spreading his fingers as if to reinforce a point. This rhetorical gesture is mirrored in Katlijne van Mispelteeren, with a more passive, contained placement of the hands gently laid one above the other and holding a rosary. Consequently the two portraits are perfectly balanced, conveying a sense of harmony and understanding between the couple.
The background of both paintings is plain green and both figures are dressed in dark, sober garments, the black of the man’s hat complementing the starched whiteness of the woman’s headpiece. The artist experiments with illusionistic conceits by including strong shadows behind the sitters. These not only unite the two by indicating that they are lit from the same source, they are also employed to trick the viewer by throwing shadows of the picture frames onto the background, blurring the boundaries of reality and fiction.
Catalogue entry adapted from Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting, London, 2007