This painting reflects the simple and direct manner of German portraiture of the late fifteenth century. It was once thought to be a portrait by Holbein of the German religious reformer Martin Luther, but the sitter is in fact Alexander Mornauer, town clerk of Landshut in Bavaria; the letter he holds is addressed to himself.
Cleaning also revealed the wood-grain background, which had been overpainted with a layer of Prussian blue, a pigment that only became available to artists in the early eighteenth century. The colour was similar to one often used by Hans Holbein the Younger, the most accomplished of sixteenth-century portraitists. Whoever made this change may have wished to pass the portrait off as a work by Holbein, which would have had more value than a painting by an unknown German artist.
This painting reflects the simple and direct manner of German portraiture of the late fifteenth century. The sturdy sitter confronts the viewer head on, both of his hands clearly visible, his body filling the breadth of the image. His expression is asymmetrical: one side of his face is composed and relaxed while the other is stern and sombre, the eye positioned higher up and the eyebrow frowning slightly. The sense of movement in his expression gives the portrait vibrancy, but his presence is anchored by the strong shadow he casts on the background, which is intended to imitate the effect of pine cut across the grain.
The background was at some point overpainted with a layer of bright blue paint, which technical analysis has revealed to be Prussian blue, a pigment that only became available to artists in the early years of the eighteenth century. The blue colour was similar to that often used by Hans Holbein the Younger, the renowned sixteenth-century German portraitist, as a background in his portraits (like A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, for example). Whoever made this change probably wished to pass the portrait off as a work by Holbein, which would have had more value than a painting by an unknown German artist.
Not only was the painting thought to be by Holbein, but, as we know from the descriptions of engravings made after it in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, it was thought to show the German religious reformer Martin Luther. When the painting was cleaned at the National Gallery, the blue overpaint was removed, revealing the original wood-grain background and the full extent of the hat, which had been reduced in size as part of the deceptive transformation. The sitter is identified by the letter he holds, which is addressed to him: his name is Alexander Mornauer. Mornauer was town clerk of Landshut in Bavaria, a position he inherited in 1464 from his father and which he held until 1488.
The severity of the image is softened by the evocation of texture in the sitter’s clothing, such as the soft fur lining of the coat, and in his skin, where a fine network of wrinkles is visible around his clear hazel eyes. Strong catch lights in the pupils and white outlines to the irises brighten his eyes. In many details, including the articulation of the finger joints, the delineation of the fingernails and the treatment of the highlights, the portrait bears close resemblance to one of Sigismund, Archduke of Tyrol (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), which is attributed to the same anonymous painter (who is named after the National Gallery picture).
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