Portrait of a Man
© The Frick Collection
Oil painting of a man wearing black
English (US)
We don't know who this sitter was--the plain coat and cloak flung over shoulder give no clues as to his nationality, occupation or rank. But Hans Memling, whose portraits were much admired in the late 15th century--in Italy as well as his native Northern Europe--has captured not only the likeness but the character of this unknown man. Although Memling placed the sitter so close to us that he seems pressed against the frame, he seems psychologically remote, absorbed in his own thoughts. In his firmly modeled face and serious expression, we sense not only a strong individual, but a man of intelligence and spirituality. The bust-length presentation of a figure in front of an open window, with a landscape beyond, became a formula in Flemish painting, and this one dating from about 1470 is probably one of Memling's earliest known works in this format. The serene and impeccably crafted setting evokes a wonderful peace of mind. But what makes the picture so magical is the transition in the sky--from cloudless blue, to a very pale blue, to almost white, at the horizon.

Portrait of a Man

Hans Memling (ca. 1430−1494)
Date: ca. 1470
Medium: Oil on oak panel
13 1/8 × 9 1/8 in. (33.3 × 23.2 cm)
Credit Line: Purchased by The Frick Collection, 1968
Accession number:1968.1.169
Additional Information
The thriving trade centers of the Netherlands provided an international market for talented artists such as Memling. However, the plain coat worn by the subject of this portrait offers no clue to his nationality, occupation, or rank. The serious, firmly modeled head suggests a man who was not only forceful but thoughtful. Although he is physically placed close to the viewer, his body pressed against the frame, he appears aloof and removed from the world. Panels such as this often served as covers or wings for small private altarpieces, but it seems probable that the Frick example, like many others dating from the second half of the fifteenth century, was commissioned as an independent painting.

Memling was one of the most admired portraitists of his day, in Italy as well as in Northern Europe, owing both to his skill in capturing physical likenesses and to his even rarer gift of conveying, as in this portrait, the intellectual and spiritual character of his subjects.

Source: Art in The Frick Collection: Paintings, Sculpture, Decorative Arts, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

North Italian collection (?). Matthiesen Gallery, Berlin, by 1929. Baron Joseph van der Elst, 1932. Baroness Allison Roebling van der Elst, Geneva. Frick, 1968.

Source: The Frick Collection: Drawings, Prints & Later Acquisitions. Volume IX. New York: The Frick Collection, 2003.