A Very Worldly Balance

John Haber
in New York City

Hans Memling: Portraits

Hans Memling keeps everything in balance. Palm trees stand amid the native species. A soft, Italian light courses through the trees and the greenish-blue northern skies. Swans idle on the waters, besides the plain, wood-frame architecture of Renaissance Belgium and stone spires still today. His sitters never lose their dignity as they look forward and past the viewer, holding themselves and their signs of wealth and power directly up against a panel's edge.

One may find Memling's reserve as well as theirs hard to crack. He reached Bruges well into his thirties, so no exhibition can catch him as an awkward striver. Unlike some of his sitters, he maintained his prosperity and charm through rather nasty political upheavals. After two entire rooms of his portraits, however, one may discover that it is one's own reserve that has cracked. With some twenty paintings by one Renaissance artist, the Frick has assembled a rarity—a small blockbuster. Hans Memling's Diptych of Maarten Nieuwenhove (Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, 1487)

Pleasing the right people

Memling towers over the third generation of the Northern Renaissance, but I forgive you if you never so much as noticed. Hans Memling surely counts as the greatest follower of Rogier van der Weyden, one of the founders of the Northern Renaissance, and an influence on the Renaissance portrait in Italy. He came to prominence in the 1470s—after his move to Bruges, where Jan van Eyck had worked and where Petrus Christus, a pupil of Jan van Eyck, was just finishing his career. Yet I long thought of Memling as the cool professional amid the fifteenth century's revelatory realism and spiritual depth.

My second trip to Bruges, where Memling has his own museum, turned me around. One textbook calls him "amiable," but his professionalism does not mean only an eagerness to please. Rather, it translates to an imagination capable of taking almost anything and running with it. He could command a great variety of genres, some of which, like these Italianate portraits, he helped to invent. For every church interior, he has a fable set in an imagined countryside, like a folk tale.

Portraiture may appear at first to confine that imagination. However, a focus on the sitter also humanizes the artist and shows him at his most characteristic and progressive. The exhibition represents a collaboration with the Thyssen collection in Madrid and the Groeningemuseum, also in Bruges, and it contains almost two-thirds of his surviving portraits. (A few more reside at the Met, a ten-minute stroll away.) It also builds on a portrait in the Frick's permanent collection, one of the best-preserved works of his time.

Still, one must begin with that professionalism and reserve. Memling is not always eager to please. Like his sitters, however, he takes special care to please the right people. He lets one know to a high precision his subjects' appearance, status, and proper respect for religion, but little else about them. No wonder an inscription, perhaps a later hand, identifies one woman with those cryptic prophets, the sibyls.

To this day, one knows little about most of them, other than that his patrons surely shared in the thriving commercial wealth of Bruges. That includes several from Italy, such as Tommaso Portinari, who represented the Medici banking interests. In some cases, a portrait commemorates the dead. For the Italians, perhaps it functioned more as a souvenir of their travels. Either way, it promises to defy the haunting gap between any image and an absent object.

When his sitters do profess devotion to a higher cause, they expect a worldly reward. Even as Saint Martin, half hidden in the painted illusion of stained glass, divides his cloak with a beggar, the saint on horseback projects a courtly grace. The sibyl can afford to wear seven jeweled rings.

Portraiture's many genres

Memling may settle for a reserved and very worldly image of humanity. However, that says something about his modernity, too. As perhaps never before, portraiture lives very much in here and now. It comes down to that balance: he projects an ideal, but an earthly ideal indeed.

One can see it in the exhibition's very first portrait—of a man kneeling before the Virgin and child. The motif shows Memling very close to his predecessors. Shadows out of van Eyck or Rogier still play across the tiled floor. Like them, too, he supplies not an independent portrait, but a painting with a clearly religious purpose. The church interior isolates his subjects from the natural world, here glimpsed only in the landscape through the windows. Behind the donor stands his patron saint, Anthony Abbott, identified by his bell and pig.

The composition hints in other ways, too, at a division between the human and divine. Mary stands full length, her slim, Gothic grace further flattened by the tapestry behind her. The donor—closer to the foreground, more strongly modeled, and at an angle that connects him to the perspective diagonal of the room—occupies a greater depth, connecting him to the viewer's own world. At the same time, however, they share the same space, with none of the amplitude and awe of Rogier. As for the pig, van Eyck would surely have woven its symbolism seamlessly into the landscape, keeping two worlds apart, while Petrus would have smiled at the ungainly beast, thrusting the two worlds up against each other and in the viewer's face. Memling's pig just joins the assembly, lowering its snout in proper deference.

Late in life, Memling returns to a similar composition, with the show's best-known work. The donor, Maarten van Neiuwenhove, again stands sideways and the Virgin forward, this time in the separate panels of a diptych. In every other way, however, their lives have become entirely intertwined. His panel has the greater light and vibrancy, while hers contains his coat of arms. A mirror behind her captures both figures in miniature from the rear, and a shutter behind her leans slightly open, allowing a peek at a richly imagined garden. It could stand for the "closed garden" of Mary's virginity, as in tradition, but Neiuwenhove also just happens to mean "new garden."

As here, elements of religious painting, landscape, still life, and simple narrative appear often in context of portraiture, which accounts for almost a third of Memling's surviving works. Even the convex mirror, its reflection not quite adding up across two panels, shuns the dazzling challenges to pictorial unity in a famous double portrait by van Eyck. Not coincidentally, two of his most fanciful paintings use landscape to integrate many religious scenes into a single, unified space. It seems only natural that he unifies landscape and portraiture as well. One cannot experience the overwhelming mix of subjects that I discovered in Memling's own museum. Still, one gets a decent idea of his new, worldly eclecticism.

His versatility includes the church and private interiors, with their wood, tiles, and stained glass. Besides jewelry, his sitters sport a range of fabric from pressed cloth, translucent veils, fur, and leather to van Neiuwenhove's satin. On the back of one panel, an illusory niche holds a lovely still life. The flowers and majolica vase, once hidden by overpainting, would have formed an outside shutter for a triptych. A more recent cleaning has recovered a trompe l'oeil insect on one panel's lower edge, as if on a real ledge.

The Italian style

In between the interiors, of course, come the independent portraits, one to a panel. Memling prefers bust-length, nearly frontal figures, turned just enough to avoid eye contact with the viewer. Men and women stand on surprisingly equal terms. They dominate the landscape of perfect, blue skies and light breaking across the horizon. Their hair puns on the tufted trees behind them.

You may recognize the portrait style from Italian Renaissance art. One can consider his internationalism one more sign of his eclecticism, starting with his birth in Germany. His early training, most likely in Cologne and in the elegant International Style, helps explain Memling's Gothic elements. The growing interchange with Italy continued well into the next century, and it has much to do with his later success, as well as that of Bruges, its merchants, and its visitors. Portinari stunned Florence by bringing it the most exciting altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes. Later centuries returned the favor, attributing at least one Memling portrait to Antonello da Messina.

Many still consider the style an Italian invention. The pendulum is starting to swing the other way, though, and the Frick hopes to give it an extra push. The exhibition makes the case for Memling the innovator. If he could explore and invent so many genres, why not in portraiture?

I am less certain. It depends on the speed with which his work reached Italy—and on what the travelers from Italy brought north with them. It depends on how distinct one considers his approach. Piero della Francesca pairs two figures from 1465, but in profile and with a more distant landscape. Filippo Lippi has landscape seen through a window a generation earlier still, and those Italianate trees sure have to come from somewhere. One might better understand the changes in portraiture as incremental, with Memling once more an eclectic and a synthesizer.

Regardless of how it began, Memling's approach again insists on this world. It unifies landscape and portraiture, because both here serve as evidence of a human presence on the earth. It presses faces against the picture plane, a hat against the panel's upper limit. Often he turns the panel into a fictive window frame, with the sitter breaking into the viewer's own world. Those beautiful hands rest with their tips over the edge.

That gambit comes with a risk. In a portrait, a three-quarter view tends to look three dimensional, whereas a full face can look flat and weightless. The exhibition certainly shows Memling as a skilled miniaturist, but he can never match the modeling of flesh in greater artists. Revealingly, the one portrait in the show from a follower tries to "improve" on him, with heavier shadows, a full torso, and no competition from the world beyond. Even in his lightness, however, Memling rests content with worldly pleasures. Instead of monumentality, he supplies propriety and humanity.

The mundane and the ideal

New Yorkers take pride in their museums. In a single city, they represent the earth's cultures and histories. They can fairly claim to have defined modern art, and it took the same city's galleries for definitions to begin slipping away.

When it comes to Western art history, however, they keep letting New York down. Maybe their permanent collections could never match Europe's centuries of accretions—or, in some cases, wartime seizures. Maybe America's idealization of markets cannot substitute for a vision of culture as a common legacy, deserving public support. Maybe increasing commercialization of the arts leaves no time to reach into the corners of the past. Regardless, a rundown of recent exhibitions can get truly embarrassing.

Where the Met has had Fra Carnevale, a preposterously biased Renaissance history centered on Lombardy, and drawings alone by Peter Paul Rubens and Leonardo, London's National Gallery has presented Titian and early Raphael. For that matter, Washington's National Gallery has exhibited Jan Vermeer, late Rembrandt, and more than one of their contemporaries. Even the special pleading now for Memling's influence has something of New York's usual inflation of a curator's subject and thesis. A contributor to the Memling catalog, Maryan W. Ainsworth of the Met, used an exhibition in the past to present debatable versions indeed of Petrus and the Northern Renaissance.

For those who care about the Renaissance, though, this could be your year, and one had best make the most of it. The Met will survey Fra Angelico and, later, Antonello da Messina himself, with Jan Gossart still to come. The Frick, long New York's best hold on the past, is getting things to a splendid start.

Memling's variety makes him a natural starting point anyway. His portraits can serve as a quick survey of the early Renaissance century up north, a window onto a new humanism, or a handy preview of the Italian Renaissance. Taken together, they really do amount to more than a studied reserve. They offer a view onto a wholly new, more secular, middle-class audience for art. They also explore the link between that audience and a growing verisimilitude. A greater truthfulness may shy away from van Eyck's mirror-like perfection, but it embraces the mundane and the ideal on equal terms.

The luminosity that one may have missed compared to van Eyck or Robert Campin gains in strength just above the horizon. Do you miss, too, the austere drama of Rogier? Does Memling neglect the emotional fervor of van der Goes? Does he evade the refreshing awkwardness of those who sat for Petrus? Such gaps could stand instead for a new elevation of this world. They offer a way to encompass the extraordinary lives of his sitters—and the ordinary life they sometimes wished to leave behind.

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Hans Memling's portraits ran at The Frick Collection through December 31, 2005. A related review looks at a reunited altarpiece.


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