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An unknown man gazes past us into the distance. There is nothing to identify him beyond the scroll in his hand, which tells us his age: 38. His clothing is sombre – there is no conspicuous display of wealth and status – but it does suggest that he was a man of means.
The man’s costume and the style of the painting suggest it was done in around 1520. The painting isn't signed but resembles a group of portrait drawings made by Lucas van Leyden, two of which are dated 1521.
His intent gaze, firm jaw and determined mouth give an impression of a formidable character. This intensity and edginess is typical of van Leyden, and can also be found in other Netherlandish portraits.
An unknown man gazes past us into the distance. There is nothing to identify him beyond the scroll in his hand, which tells us his age: 38. His clothing is sombre but does suggest that he was a man of means. His fine white shirt has a decorated collar and he wears a grey doublet with a damask-like pattern under a robe.
The man’s costume and the style of the painting suggest it was created in around 1520. The painting isn‘t signed but it resembles a group of portrait drawings made by Lucas van Leyden, two of which are dated 1521. The drawings are thought to have been influenced by the work of Albrecht Dürer, whom van Leyden met in Antwerp that year. But this painting is less close to Dürer’s work, so it was not necessarily made after the two met.
The sitter was once identified as van Leyden himself, but seems more likely to have been an ancestor of a later owner, Claes Adriansz. van Leeuwen, possibly his maternal grandfather, the lawyer Franz van Leeuwen. It might have been painted shortly before his death in the winter of 1519–20.
In sixteenth-century portraits across Europe, sitters often hold objects which give some clue as to their identity or profession, as in Moroni’s The Tailor (’Il Tagliapanni'), or their character and concerns, as in van Scorel’s A Man with Pansies and a Skull. Here we have nothing to go on but the face itself. The man’s intent gaze, firm jaw and determined mouth give an impression of a formidable character. The simplicity of the composition and his dress perhaps tells us more about who he was not than who he was. There is no conspicuous display of wealth and status, none of the trappings of scholarship, neither arms nor armour; he was presumably not an aristocrat, soldier, scholar or cleric, but a prosperous professional. This intensity and edginess is typical of van Leyden and can also be found in other Netherlandish portraits.
This sitter is shown in three-quarter profile strongly lit from the left, a typical pose for Netherlandish portraits. The light on his face and hands contrasts strongly with his dark clothing and the deep shadow down his right cheek and jaw, in a way that recalls Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) of almost 100 years earlier. Space seems compressed: the man’s shoulders fill the width of the painting and his hands seem to be cut by the frame (although the panel may have been cut down). The way his shadow falls on the green background suggests that it is just behind him. This is a painting meant to be seen close up: details such as the strands of hair curling from under the hat, the fine line of his mouth and the tiny lights in his eyes all demand careful attention.
The green background has red underpainting, a peculiarity found in other portraits by van Leyden. We are not sure why he did this; perhaps the red slightly muted the bright copper green pigment.
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