We don't know who painted this portrait or the sitter’s identity, though he was clearly a man of means. His clothes are rich but sombre – a black or dark grey hat and doublet, and a purple coat lined with grey damask. His white shirt is finely woven and the laces at his neck have gold tips; he wears four gold rings. His clothing suggests that the portrait was painted in about 1535 in the regions of the Low Countries north of the Rhine and the Meuse.
His hand is resting on a damaged skull, which has lost most of its teeth and its lower jaw. Skulls in Renaissance painting were symbols of death, while pansies could stand for thoughts (pensée, which means thought, is the flower’s French name). The man is clearly meditating on death, hence his solemn and distant expression.
We don‘t know who painted this portrait or the sitter’s identity, though he was clearly a man of means. His clothes are rich but sombre – a black or dark grey hat and doublet, and a purple coat lined with grey damask. His white shirt is finely woven, the laces at his neck have gold tips and he wears four gold rings, some set with jewels. His clothing suggests the portrait was painted in about 1535 in the regions of the Low Countries north of the Rhine and the Meuse.
His hand is resting on a damaged skull; it has lost most of its teeth and its lower jaw. Skulls in Renaissance art were symbols of death, as in Holbein’s Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (’The Ambassadors'). The pansies he holds – which are painted on top of the doublet, rather than in spaces left blank for them – are a visual pun: the French name for the flower is pensée, which means thought. The painting is a kind of vanitas, and the man is clearly meditating on death, hence his solemn and distant expression. In the sixteenth century, contemplating mortality, specifically one’s own, was believed to be morally uplifting and improving.
The painting’s style is close to that of Jan van Scorel, especially his portraits of pilgrims now in the Centraal Museum, Utrecht and the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem. Van Scorel and his followers tended to elongate the faces and enlarge the features of their male subjects and give them low foreheads, as here. But while Scorel’s paintings have distinctive, linear underdrawing, infrared reflectography shows no underdrawing in this painting. It is therefore attributed to a follower rather than Scorel himself, possibly someone in his workshop.
The oak panel, chalk ground and medium – linseed oil – are typical of Netherlandish painting of this period. The purple pigment fluorite in the collar and sleeves is relatively uncommon. Painters at this time were interested in new sources for pigments and in experimenting with pigments that were not in common use. The mineral calcium flouride, from which the pigment was made, was perhaps obtained locally.
Although the painted surface stops short of the edges, the preparatory layers – the ground and primer – continue to all four edges. Perhaps a frame was attached after the preparatory layers had been applied but before painting, or maybe there were guidelines showing the artist where the frame would go.
Whoever the artist was he was a talented painter, working quickly and skilfully. He exploited the slow-drying qualities of oil paint by working wet-in-wet and by dragging and feathering his paint to smooth changes of tone. His skills are shown especially well in the skull.
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