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Memling's Portraits
A Special Exhibition Review by Stan Parchin

About the show:

A sense of serenity and awe overwhelms the viewer when first encountering Memling's Portraits, the sole American and final stop of this remarkable exhibition's whirlwind, international three-museum tour. This rare retrospective of nearly two-thirds of Hans Memling's extant portraits (more than twenty-five superb masterpieces produced by the fifteenth-century, early Netherlandish painter and his school), is astutely organized by Colin Bailey, Chief Curator of Manhattan's prestigious Frick Collection. The paintings are neatly arranged in the museum's two intimate lower level galleries. Memling's Portraits' immense popularity encouraged the museum's administration to leave only the exhibition open until 8:00 PM on Friday nights until the show closes on New Year's Eve.

Hans Memling (ca. 1435/40-1494) was born near Mainz in present-day Germany. Recent scholarship suggests that he arrived in the Low Countries in the late 1450s. While residing in Brussels, Memling was presumably a journeyman in the workshop of early Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464). Known largely, but not exclusively, for his accomplishments in religious painting, three amazing works in this show reveal Memling's inventive genius in portraiture and still-life.

Recently restored, Portrait of an Old Woman (whose companion piece, Portrait of an Old Man, is at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art), dramatically illustrates Hans Memling's ability to record realistically every nuance of the sitter. Each crisp fold of the aged matron's stiff, sterile and starched wimple is starkly depicted in this small-scale panel. Memling's patrons were largely ecclesiastical and patrician. The Late Middle Ages in which they lived were a trying time of recurring plague, pestilence, civil and religious unrest. Memling's exacting and revelatory paintbrush accurately recorded this woman's psychological burden in his telling visual portrayal of her wearisome visage.

Hans Memling (1435/40-1494)
Portrait of an Old Woman, ca. 1475-1480
Panel (oak)
26.5 x 17.8 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Edith A. and Percy S. Strauss Collection

The second room of The Frick's presentation features, in its own freestanding vitrine (display), a double-sided masterpiece of Northern Renaissance magnificence not to be missed. Memling's Portrait of a Young Man at Prayer and Flower Still Lifewere last seen here in a special exhibition of Old Master paintings from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, then located in Lugano, Switzerland, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early 1980s, a fact conspicuously absent in this show's catalogue entries for both paintings.

Memling's Portrait of a Young Man at Prayer depicts a youthful half-length gentleman of some late-medieval social stature, illuminated delicately from a light source emanating from beyond the balustrade to his immediate left. To this day, the sitter's identity remains a mystery. His attire is entirely Spanish. The Oriental rug that drapes the window sill suggests that he had commercial ties to the Spanish wool trade in cosmopolitan Bruges, an international banking city in Northern Europe. Bruges' bustling economy attracted Italian bankers and international merchants during the Fifteenth Century, some of whom were Memling's most prominent patrons.

Hans Memling (1435/40-1494)
Portrait of a Young Man at Prayer, ca. 1485-1494
Panel (oak)
29.2 x 22.5 cm
Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

The reverse side of this composition, Flower Still Life, while simple to the modern eye, provides telling insight into Christianity's visual vocabulary in Renaissance Europe. Some art historians regard this seemingly innocuous and small tableau an example of disguised symbolism. Other scholars argue that, to the Renaissance mind, there's nothing hidden here at all. Everything is apparent. Be that as it may, a definite lexicon of symbolic imagery emerges from the picture. In this spatially confined niche stands, on a table covered by an Oriental carpet, a majolica jug holding sprigs of iris, lily and columbine. All three flowers are deeply rooted in the medieval symbolism of the Virgin Mary's joys and sorrows, related to her son Jesus' predestined birth and eventual crucifixion. Of course, the vase is emblazoned with the monogram of Christ (IHS).

Hans Memling (1435/40-1494)
Flower Still Life, ca. 1485-1494
Panel (oak)
29.2 x 22.5 cm
Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

Progressing from the first room to the second, The Frick Collection provides a transition gallery. A wall display illustrates and briefly describes Memling's other works on view in Manhattan at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (twelve blocks away), some permanently and others temporarily. Sadly, they were unable to be included in this show because of the terms of the paintings' individual bequests.

While having successfully cornered the painting market in Bruges, with numerous commissions from native and Italian inhabitants, Memling's career finally succumbed to the circumstances of his times. Around 1493, the Zwin River, Bruges' primary access to the Atlantic Ocean, began to fill with silt and became innavigable, slowly silencing Hans Memling's prosperous career. His works, made popular by his international clientele in Bruges, were unable to be exported to Italy by the maritime route. Memling died one year later.

About the catalogue:

Borchert, Till-Holger (ed.). Memling's Portraits (exh. cat.).
New York: Thames & Hudson, 2005.

For further reading:

Ainsworth, Maryan W. and Keith Christiansen (eds.). From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (exh. cat.).
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.

"Memling's Portraits" is on view from October 12 through December 31, 2005 at The Frick Collection, 1 East 70 Street, New York, NY 10021-4967 (Telephone: 212-288-0700; Website: www.frick.org). The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM and Sunday from 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM. Admission is $12.00 for adults, $8.00 for senior citizens (62 years of age and over), $5.00 for students and pay as you wish on Sunday from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM, which includes the ArtPhone recorded tour of the museum. Children ages 10 to 15 years of age must be accompanied by an adult.


From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history. His interests include: the art and culture of Old and New Kingdom Egypt; the Italian and Northern Renaissances; Church history; and witchcraft, heresy and social dissent in late-medieval and early Modern Europe.

See all Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews from Stan Parchin.

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