A fair-haired man stands in an interior, gazing past us. Through the window behind him we can see a landscape with a church in the distance. The date on the back wall makes this the earliest datable – and in fact the only dated painting – by Bouts, and the earliest dated portrait to include an open window looking onto a landscape. Curiously the date’s first three numbers appear to be carved into the plaster, while the fourth stands proud of it.
We are not sure who the sitter is but he might be Jan van Winckele, a prominent citizen of Louvain where Bouts was living in the 1460s, and a friend of the artist. In 1462 van Winckele was given an important post in the university administration. The portrait was perhaps made to commemorate this event.
A fair-haired man stands in an interior, gazing past us into the distance. Behind him is an open window; though it we can see a landscape with a church in the distance. There is a date – 1462 – on the wall behind him; curiously, the first three numbers appear to be carved into the plaster, while the fourth stands proud of it.
The man’s dress is sober but distinctive. Its single colour is unusual for the period, but it is not the dress of a poor man. His dull red robe and hat appear to be wool and his sleeves, which are slit and the buttoned across his upper arm, are lined and trimmed with brown fur. Underneath this he wears a doublet in the same colour with a standing collar, possibly of velvet. His white shirt is just visible at his throat. His hands seem to rest on the frame, an illusion possibly reinforced by the original frame, which is now missing.
This is the earliest datable, and only dated, portrait attributed to Dirk Bouts. Although Bouts knew all about vanishing points, the perspective of the window is distorted, perhaps for aesthetic reasons. The alternation of light and shadow across the portrait is marvellously contrived so that the lit side of the sitter’s face is silhouetted against the shadowed glass of the shutter, while the shadowed side of his hat and face is silhouetted against the lit wall behind. The idea of making the sitter’s hands appear to rest on the frame had been developed by Robert Campin (compare this to A Woman) and Rogier van der Weyden (as in his Portrait of a Lady).
We are not sure who the sitter is but he might be Jan van Winckele, a prominent citizen of Louvain, where Bouts was living in the 1460s, and a friend of the artist. He was a lawyer, and graduated from the University of Louvain in 1449. He owned at least two of Bouts’s paintings and was a witness to his will. In 1462 van Winckele was given an important post in the university administration, and the portrait was possibly made to commemorate this event. The plainness of his dress was perhaps a response to Louvain university regulations, which complained of ‘indecent’ dress and laid down that university members should dress soberly in a single colour. In 1467 George Lichton, a Scottish student at Louvain, made sketches of his classes in a volume of his lecture notes. These show both students and teachers in red robes and hats with distinctive stalks on the top.
In his will, van Winckele laid down that if his children died without heirs all his property should go towards the foundation of a college for lawyers. His son, also Jan, died childless and in 1555 Collegium Winckelianum was set up on the site of their family home. It is possible that this portrait went to the College, which closed in 1797. By the 1830s the portrait was in a private collection in London.
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