Painting technique in Bruges' portraiture of the sixteenth century

Till-Holger Borchert, Dorothy K. Hohenberg Chair of Excellence in Art History Art Department, The University of Memphis

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council


Portrait painting of the Low Countries had a considerable and lasting impact in shaping portraiture in late medieval and early modern Europe. The emergence of a new type of portraiture in the Netherlands during the first decades of the fifteenth century, that represented sitters in half-length and three quarter view instead of continuing to apply the older profile view, seems to have answered to both a changing demand in portrait representations and, it would seem, to a diversification of their functions.

Portraiture was no longer a privilege of high nobility but was adopted as a means of representation by larger segments of society, indicating that addressing issues such as lineage and ancestry had become increasingly important to urban elites as well, and that portraiture - including full-figure donor-representations in the context of larger foundations - was a common means to publicly demonstrate the sitters' social ambitions and status. The portrait in three-quarter view was adopted for a variety of functions, ranging from memorial or commemorative representations to portraits that had a decidedly devotional context. It was also used for what we commonly refer to as "autonomous" or independent portraits even though in most of these cases we are surprisingly unaware of their original contexts, functions, presentations and publics.

Portrait painting from Bruges played a prominent rule in the evolution of the new portrait type. Jan van Eyck, who worked from Bruges from 1432 onwards, played a decisive part in establishing the new Flemish portraiture. In the second half of the fifteenth century resident Bruges artists like Petrus Christus and Hans Memling each added new features to portraiture so their work would continue to appeal to a variety of clients, ranging from courtiers of the Burgundian Dukes to clerics, patricians, and, perhaps most importantly, to a vast group of foreign merchants and bankers within the city limits. This social group not only contributed to Bruges being the foremost commercial centre of the Burgundian Netherlands but also formed an important clientele for painters and other craftsmen who were occupied with the production of what has been termed "luxury goods", i.e. jewellery, metalwork, embroidery, and manuscript illumination.

The role of those foreign merchants and bankers who had moved from the mercantile centres of Italy, Spain, Germany and England to Bruges and lived here mostly on a semi-permanent base, cannot, in terms of the diffusion of the remarkable innovations of Early Netherlandish Painters throughout Europe, be overestimated. They formed an important group of the painters' clients, and commissioned altarpieces, devotional paintings and, last but not least, portraits, many of which were transferred to their home countries where they, because of the growing reputation of Flemish Paintings, influenced foreign painters as well.

At least in the case of Hans Memling, it might be said that he consciously sought to please the affluent Italian community in Bruges by introducing landscapes as background into his portraits, arguably because it was the detailed landscapes of earlier Flemish artists, like van Eyck, that were much admired by Italian collectors. It seems that in his paintings, Memling made a distinction between his clientele and continued to offer traditional portraiture (following the example of Rogier van der Weyden) to more conservative, local clients. It would further seem that particular form of portraiture, for example memorial representations, followed a more traditional approach.

It has been observed that Memling's portraiture is a variation of some compositional segments that are combined in different ways. This parallels an increasing amount of "prefabricated" compositions and "on spec" production in religious and devotional panels in the work of painters from Bruges from the second half of the sixteenth century onwards. It has been argued that there was also a decrease of effort put into these portrait paintings; that is to say a more efficient, less time-consuming and therefore more competitive manner of portraiture in the course of Memling's career. However, one has to take into account that certain clients were more demanding than others in their choice of formal portrait types, and that also certain variations in the finish of the painted surface may well have been related to the prestige attached to specific commissions.

The production of on spec works becomes evident in the oeuvre of Gerard David and his followers - Benson and Isenbrandt - and this observation is supported by contemporary archival evidence of emerging art markets and cross-workshop collaboration. Despite David's prolific production, there is little evidence for his activities as a portrait painter. The "Portrait of a Goldsmith" (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) is the only surviving portrait that is sometimes attributed to David, although it bears stylistic parallels to the work of Michel Sittow and seems to be directly inspired by Van Eyck's earlier portraiture. In its ostentatious display of rings and jewellery, the panel is an early example of an occupational portrait that became increasingly popular in the sixteenth century.

Portrait production of Bruges in the sixteenth century was diverse in its variety of portrait types (occupational portrait, interior portrait, portrait with landscapes, portrait with neutral background), but needs to be systematically reassessed in terms of attribution, chronology, function and patronage. While the oeuvre of Pieter Pourbus is relatively well-defined, there are considerable problems regarding the stylistic heterogeneity of portraits traditionally attributed to Ambrosius Benson and Adriaen Isenbrandt.

Examination of Bruges' sixteenth century portraits from the Groeningemuseum by means of IRR reveals that they have often been produced by mechanically transferring a portrait drawing of some kind by means of tracing and/or pouncing to the panel. While this evidence might indicate an efficient participation of workshop members in the execution process in the light of the stylistic heterogeneity of sixteenth century portraiture from Bruges, it should be remembered that there has always been a need to transfer a preparatory portrait drawing onto a painting. Even Van Eyck - in his Portrait of Cardinal Albergati - used the aids of mechanical methods of transfer, as has recently been shown by Ketelsen and Reiche.