MADRID, SPAIN.-The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is holding the 16th edition of its Contexts exhibition series in the new Contexts exhibition space through 15 May 2005. On this occasion the subject selected is Memling Portraits. Sponsored by Banco Urquijo, the exhibition is organised by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in collaboration with the Groeningemuseum in Bruges and the Frick Collection in New York. Following its Madrid showing, the exhibition will travel to those two institutions: from 7 June to 4 September in Bruges and from 6 October to 31 December in New York. This is the first exhibition in the Contexts of the Permanent Collection series organised by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum to travel outside Madrid.
The selection of works to be shown in Madrid comprises twelve paintings by Hans Memling, considered one of the most important 15th-century Flemish painters. Together they form a group of outstanding quality, and represent exceptional loans by leading North American and European museums, including the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence and the Fine Arts Museum in Houston. They constitute almost half of Memlings total surviving portraits. In addition to the Portrait of a Young Man in Prayer from the permanent collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which forms the centrepiece of the exhibition, works on show include Portrait of a Young Man, the Maarten van Nieuwenhove Diptych (both from the Sint-Janshospitaal in Bruges), Portrait of a Young Man from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and Portrait of an Elderly Woman from the Fine Arts Museum, Houston.
In addition to offering a unique opportunity to see these works, the exhibition aims to demonstrate Memlings typology and the innovations which he introduced into the genre of portraiture over the course of his career. To do so, a chronological structure has been used.
Within Memlings oeuvre primarily consisting of religious paintings the thirty or so surviving portraits are considered his most original works. In addition, Memling was the most successful portrait painter of his generation in the Burgundian Low Countries. His art combined the achievements of Rogier van der Weyden with that of other Flemish painters such as Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus to offer a new model of portraiture which would triumph in Europe and which marked the beginnings of the great Renaissance portrait. Memlings influence is particularly evident in Italy, where knowledge of his work arrived principally through his numerous Italian clients.
One of the artists major innovations within the genre of portraiture was the inclusion of gentle landscape backgrounds, a motif which he employed more regularly in the case of his Italian patrons. Fields or terraces are used to emphasise the sitters, represented in three-quarter or half-length format, in itself a novelty within Flemish portraiture of the time. Memling also used the frames of his panels to increase the spatial effects of his compositions.
The portraits included in the exhibition also allow for an appreciation of his stylistic evolution at various moments in his career. Memlings earliest works are characterised by a certain coolness, with smooth, taut modelling, while in later paintings the brushwork becomes agile and spontaneous and the technique looser but also firm and secure. The outstanding features of Memlings portraits, however, are his mastery of execution, virtuoso handling and extreme precision in the definition of the sitters faces, the details of their dress and the background landscape, all achieved with an extraordinary economy of means.
Hans Memling was born in Seligenstadt near Frankfurt around 1435. We have no information as to his initial training, although some aspects of his work indicate that he may have trained in a German workshop. Nonetheless, his style indicates the notable influence of Rogier van der Weyden, and it is therefore possible that the young artist worked with this master in Brussels towards the end of Van der Weydens life.
The first secure reference to Memling is dated 30 June 1465 when he recorded as a citizen in Bruges, the city where he set up as an independent artist. Memlings clients in this flourishing city at that point one of Europes most important centres of international trade were drawn from the wealthy burgher class, principally from the fields of banking and commerce. These clients, who often commissioned their portraits, were Flemish as well as Italian, English and Spanish.
One of the most productive phases of Memlings career in terms of the quality and number of works produced is the five years between 1475 and 1480 when he headed a highly active workshop. These years saw the creation of some of his most famous paintings, such as The Adoration of the Magi panel in the Memlingmuseum, commissioned by Jan Floreins, and the triptych whose central panel depicts The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, also in that museum. Memling died in Bruges on 11 August 1494.
A new and successful portrait format - The tradition of the portrait in Flemish painting has its origins in the widespread practice of representing donor figures in religious paintings, be they altarpieces for churches or public buildings commissioned by congregations, confraternities, official bodies or private donors, or diptychs and triptychs intended for private devotion. In the former, the patrons are normally represented full-length, often accompanied by patron saints and at times kneeling in prayer on either side of the central religious scene.
The second group, intended for private devotion, was one of the most successful formats among private clients: in these works the figure is depicted half-length or three-quarters, in an attitude of prayer, directing his or her gaze towards the main panel which represents a religious scene. In the case of triptychs, this occupies the centre with the portraits of the donors on each size. They are generally a married couple, with the man on the left and the woman on the right, a typically Netherlandish format that may have been invented by Rogier van der Weyden, but which Memling used with particular frequency. A number of works of this type are included in the exhibition, along with others that can be considered independent portraits.
It is not yet clear whether Memlings most important contribution to the genre of portraiture the use of the landscape background was his own invention or derives from earlier models in devotional paintings by Van der Weyden and Van Eyck. Memling, however, gave this device his own stamp and developed it so that it became the balancing counterpoint of his compositions: the figure of the sitter in the foreground stands out against the gentle landscape background which gives a clear sense of vertical divide, creating two clearly differentiated upper and lower zone. The sitters frequently rest their hands on the edge of the frame which acts as a ledge, as if leaning out of a window, again achieving a greater sense of spatial differentiation between foreground and background. This optical device, along with other illusionistic measures, was further emphasised on occasions through the depiction of a fictive frame behind the sitter, projecting the figure and bringing it still further into the spectators space.
Memling emphasised the presence of his sitters through the use of such devices, endowing them with an air of nobility but without excessive haughtiness. He was not, however, concerned with conveying their personalities, depicting them as serene, elegant and at the same time close to the viewer. All this, together with the refined handling, the delicacy of the faces, the details of clothing and soft landscape background account for his success as a portraitist, particularly among his Italian clients.