Memling’s Portraits, The Frick Collection’s special fall exhibition, offered the most comprehensive gathering to date of works in this genre by the celebrated Netherlandish artist Hans Memling (c. 1435-1494). Memling’s oeuvre comprises some one hundred paintings, of which thirty are portraits. Executed in Bruges between 1470 and the artist’s death some twenty-five years later, his portraits bear eloquent witness to “Memling’s exasperatingly seamless evolution,” as noted in 1998 by Memling scholar Dirk De Vos. While issues of chronology, authorship, and the identification of sitters have long been debated by historians, the panels themselves never fail to impress by their humanity, truthfulness, and peerless technique. The exhibition, which featured a selection of more than twenty works by Memling and his school, also explored the function of portraiture in the Netherlands during the fifteenth century.
Although his date of birth is not recorded, Jan van Mimnelinghe (Hans Memling) was born sometime between 1435 and 1440 in the German town of Seligenstadt, near Mainz. His early training was carried out probably in Cologne, and it is generally agreed that, having arrived in the Low Countries in the late 1450s, Memling spent a prolonged period in the Brussels workshop of Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464). Following van der Weyden’s death, he made the move north to Bruges, a thriving commercial center that was also a hub of international banking. He was granted citizenship of the city in 1465, and by the 1470s he was Bruges’s preeminent artist.
Memling was engaged by a variety of local and foreign patrons primarily as a painter of devotional works, in which portraiture often played an essential role (in altar wings or as part of a diptych or triptych). More or less similar in scale, format, and presentation, his portraits might also celebrate forthcoming nuptials, commemorate a long-standing union, or—as in the case of one documented work—serve as an independent epitaph, to be placed near the sitter’s tomb. Many of the independent portraits that Memling painted seem to have been commissioned to commemorate a foreigner’s sojourn in Bruges. Such half-lengths, with waterways and swans dotting the lush countryside in the background, were particularly popular with the Italian bankers and merchants who did business in this international trading city.