Not a day over 500: Hans Memling's portraits make 1465 look like yesterday
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 8 November 2005)

We know little about Hans Memling, but we do know that he was born near Frankfurt and that in 1465 he settled in Bruges, the metropolis of the Burgundian Netherlands. When he was about 30 he purchased Bruges citizenship for 24 Flemish shillings, a month's wages for a labourer. That gave him the right to sell his art in one of Europe's most prosperous cities.

During three decades, till his death in 1494, he reigned as the local prince of painters. Foreign merchants who came to Bruges often went home with a Memling. They admired his altarpieces, but saw something unique in his portraits. His real talent lay there, and fortunately portraits were growing fashionable. They seemed to reflect the new humanist thinking and became a way for businessmen to certify their stature.

About 30 Memling portraits have survived five centuries of European history. Twenty of them have now come together for the first time in "Memling's Portraits," a show previously seen in Madrid and Bruges, and now at the Frick Collection in New York.

Memling stands among the vibrant, powerful Late Gothic artists. I've frequently found that an otherwise boring section of a museum springs suddenly to life when I come upon the wonderfully expressive stillness of a Memling. While his pictures reproduce better than most, the originals startle even those who have often seen his work in print.

Face to face with a Memling, you appreciate his perfectionism when you notice the hair-by-hair painting of eyebrows or tiny red blood vessels in a subject's eyes. Memling wasn't showing off. He was inventing realism. He was also the 15th century's poet of human skin; made to look almost translucent, the skin in a Memling lives a vivid life of its own.

His style was highly formalized, and he underscored it by placing his subjects in formal settings.

Nevertheless, it's hard not to be touched by the men and women he painted. They reach us with a combination of intimacy and distance. We recognize their self-important manner and their complacency; perhaps we sympathize with their attempt to appear pious. Still, we know they radically differ from us; they live mental lives we can barely imagine. Five centuries of accumulated knowledge and experience separate them from us. They have no notion, for instance, that the cult of the ego will one day make individual self-expression virtuous. Their innocence both charms and disconcerts us.

They decline to look us in the eye and instead contemplate something over our shoulder. They can't help it. In Memling's time the head-on gaze remained far from popular; its great age would have to wait two centuries, till the time of Rembrandt and Velazquez. But in the 1480s, Memling's portraits looked modern, particularly in Italy. Italian portraits showed their subjects in profile long after Memling moved to the more engaging three-quarters view.

His career as portraitist followed the progress of royal politics. In 1477, the death of Charles the Bold led to heightened prosperity under his successor, Mary of Burgundy; that's when Memling's career peaked. A new ruler, the Archduke Maximillian, no friend of Bruges, brought bad times. He evicted foreign bankers and merchants, robbing Memling of many potential patrons.

Like most masters, Memling sometimes receives credit or blame for paintings he never touched, which explains why the standard texts say there are "about" 100 Memlings in existence, counting both church paintings and portraits. Just last winter scholars in Brussels announced that a panel depicting Mary Magdalene, attributed to Memling for many years, was in fact the work of a now-dead Belgian restorer who scraped a 15th-century panel bare in the 1920s and painted on it an imitation Memling. (It's pleasant to know that one collector fooled into buying it was Hermann Goering, the head of Hitler's air force.)

Considering that no one in his day wrote a biography (biographies weren't yet in style) or even left us what we would call a c.v., and considering that much of his work has long since vanished, scholars maintain a fairly good grasp of Memling's art. They particularly like to explain the vast influence of his backgrounds, the dreamlike landscapes or gardens that we often glimpse through the windows of rooms in which his subjects pose. That format, by acknowledging the world outside, gave a portrait depth and context. This wasn't necessarily his invention, but he worked so many variations on it, and used it in so many superior paintings, that he influenced the future of the portrait, especially in Italy. Leonardo borrowed Memling's background style for the Mona Lisa. When photographers search out the perfect background for a subject, they pay silent (and unusually unintended) tribute to Memling.

But while it's possible to study Memling's work, his life remains largely blank. His friends, cruelly refusing to answer the pleas of future archivists, left us little in the way of letters and journals. Facts can be picked out of leases, deeds, marriage documents and baptismal records (he had three sons) but on most aspects of his life (including the year of his birth) the best we have is a "plausible hypothesis."

This makes every curator an expert in evasive language and gives an unconsciously comic tone to otherwise solemn prose. In just one column of this show's handsome catalogue we encounter "must have been" and "is traditionally thought to have been" and "it has been suggested," as well as two uses of "possibly." Elsewhere we find my favourite, "we may infer from this."

But his life hardly matters for those lucky enough to see this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition (it runs to Dec. 31), this triumph of curatorial begging. The paintings have come from Frankfurt and Houston, from Venice and Buckingham Palace and Sibiu, Romania. Montreal sent its Portrait of a Young Man (whose attitude of piety is slightly offset by his Early Beatles haircut) and Ottawa sent The Virgin and Child with St. Anthony Abbot and a Donor, a painting that's at once handsome and (to the uninitiated) slightly ridiculous. In a beautiful indoor setting, maybe a chapel, we see at the feet of St. Anthony a good-sized pig, pushing into the picture like the terrier in a family snapshot. Memling was following tradition. St Anthony Abbot, patron saint of swineherds, often appears in art history with a hog as his companion animal.

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