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There is an astonishing immediacy to this portrait, but we do not know the identity of the sitter. According to the elaborate inscription at the top of the canvas, he is 56 years old. His advancing age is charted in the creases on his forehead and the papery skin around his eyes; the soft flesh a stark contrast to the harsh lines of his wiry beard and moustache.
Pourbus takes this opportunity to display his tremendous skill in depicting different textures, as seen in the diaphanous ruff, the quilted satin sleeves and the soft kid glove held in the man’s right hand. Nothing alludes to the sitter’s profession, although his assumed confidence and refined costume suggest he was a figure of some standing. The pendant portrait of his wife, now in the Museum of Fine Arts in San Francisco, shows her in equally sophisticated dress. The two paintings once hung together at Schloss Weissenstein in Pommersfelden until they were separated in a sale of part of the collection in 1867.
The shrewd characterisation seen here defined Pourbus’s early career in Antwerp. In 1591, the year this portrait was painted, he had been accepted as a master to the Guild of Saint Luke at the age of twenty-two. His prodigious talent was recognised by the merchant and patrician classes during these years, and he later went on to serve the royal and ducal courts in Brussels, Mantua and Paris.
The hyper-realism achieved in early works such as this, combined with an unprecedented vigour and sense of character, was fundamental in laying the foundations for the naturalistic style that would come to dominate Dutch and Flemish portrait painting of the seventeenth century.
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