Portrait of a Nobleman, c. 1500–1550
Oil on wood
13 1/4 × 10 7/8 in. (33.7 × 27.6 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Mabel Franklin Astin Bequest in memory of Franklin Smith

Habits of Mind

  • OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown

Decoding a Work of Art Bell Ringer

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Learning about portraits and how historically portraits communicated wealth
  • Study the importance of object symbolism in artwork.








Overcome Fear

Connecting to the Work of Art

Painted by an unknown artist around 1500-1550, Portrait of a Nobleman features a man in a luxurious red and white robe decorated with precious metals, jewels, and feathers. His elongated fingers, small shoulders, thin eyebrows, and pursed lips were all typical characteristics of Flemish portraits at this time and lend the sitter an air of confidence and sophistication. In his left hand, the man clutches a sword handle, a symbol of gentlemanly status and privilege. In his right, he holds a pair of gloves, the removal of which could have been read as a gesture of surrender, love, or friendship. More clues about the portrait’s purpose come from the four objects placed in front of the young man. All of these small items may be interpreted as symbols that indicate this work to be a wedding portrait.


Just as we might use a ‘profile’ picture today to tell others about ourselves, wealthy people of the past often presented themselves through portraiture. This was certainly true within the thriving world of the Netherlands during the Northern European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. This was a time in which cross-cultural European trade was strong, enabling non-noble peoples to earn substantial fortunes and new standing within society. This, in turn, stimulated secular patronage to the arts and increased demand for religious works, portraits, and the newly popular genre scenes—leading to important artistic developments, such as the invention and mastery of oil paint.


Although flies, such as the one painted on the far left, hold melancholic associations like death or impurity, the one depicted here may represent a metamorphosis or change—the sitter’s transition from single to married or child to adult. The carnation flower on the far right was also popular as a symbol of marriage or engagement. Likewise, the pair of gold rings could have served as a metaphor for wealth or the strength of the marriage bond.


The meaning of the orange peel is indistinct and complex. On one hand, 16th century Dutch society regarded citrus fruit as representational of modernization and luxury. In portraiture, it was often used to indicate the impressiveness of the sitter’s social or moral status. Citrus was also symbolic of weddings, marriage, and love. German-speaking Europe regarded lemons and bitter oranges with an additional morbid significance as they were used in rituals surrounding illness, death, and funerals. A final possible meaning of the fruit could be an indicator of familial relation to the Dutch ruling dynasty of Orange—originating from William of Orange, a primary leader of the Dutch revolt in the Eighty Years’ War—providing possible further evidence of this sitter’s royal status.


Although this portrait is not very realistic, viewers may note especially fine details in this work, such as the delicate rendering of the gentleman’s eyes, mouth, and hair and the ornate beading of his costume. The specificity of these details is made possible by the use of oil paint which, unlike other types of paint, dries slowly, allowing for the artist to add increasing detail or make corrections over a long period of time. Fostered by the utilization of these properties as well as a Dutch interest in verisimilitude (truthfulness or realness), minute detail developed as one of chief characteristics of Northern Renaissance artworks. In addition to great detail, the artist took care to construct a real sense of space within this work. Although the ledge in the paintings separates the sitter from the viewer, it is positioned in the foreground of the painting and at an angle at which viewers may feel that they could reach in touch the objects on its surface.


  • What do you notice about this painting? Look closely at and describe the various objects on the ledge. Think about their color, texture, and form, as well as their placement in relation to each other.
  • How does the artist use objects to denote the sitter’s status?
  • What types of words would you use to describe the outfit of the sitter? Notice the fine attention to details. How do details like ornate beading add to the tone of lavishness?
  • How does the color choice add to the sense of luxury within the painting?
  • Describe the physical features of the sitter, such as his hands. How does their portrayal help to communicate the sitter’s status?
  • Notice the tightly cropped composition. How would this work be different if viewers could see more of the background and table?


  • What type of climate do you think the sitter would have lived in? What element in the painting leads you to your answer?
  • How does the artist show off the wealth of the sitter in this painting?
  • Consider your own associations with the objects on the ledge. Why do you think the artist included each object in this portrait? What do you think the artist is expressing to the viewers through his choice of symbols? Justify your answer.
  • Typically, flies hold melancholic associations like death and decay or impurity and unrighteousness. Does this fit into your previous interpretation of the portrait? What other meanings do you think the fly could represent?
  • Scholars believe that this portrait was intended to be a wedding portrait. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
  • What types of objects would you use to say something about yourself?

Connecting to the Classroom

  • What do you notice about this painting? What objects are in the painting?
  • What does the man have in his hands? Why would he be holding these objects?
  • What words would you use to describe this man? What type of man do you think he is?
  • We know that this portrait was meant to send a message to a specific viewer. What extra information do you need to know before you can interpret this painting? (Do not provide them with the extra information. Just ask what they think they would need to know and ask “why is that information important?”)
  •  Look at the objects in his hands and the objects on the ledge. What could their meaning be? What message do you think he is sending? (If they struggle with this, break it down by object; i.e. what could the fly represent? What would the citrus fruit represent?)
  • This is thought to be a marriage proposal. The fly represents metamorphosis or change, the carnation is a symbol of marriage, the gold rings represent wealth or the strength of a marriage, and the citrus fruit was a luxury item in Belgium at the time. Were your guesses close? If not, what misled you?
  • What types of objects would you use to say something about yourself?


  • Have students bring in 3-4 objects that say something about themselves. Students will create a still-life arrangement of these objects and draw from observation.
  • Photo assignment: Have students take self-portrait photographs with objects that represent their personality or interests.

Subject Matter Connection

In this activity, students are asked to decode a portrait with little to no background information about the painter or the figure in the portrait. In life, and in standardized testing, students are asked to answer questions with little or no background knowledge. Becoming comfortable making inferences is very important for their future success.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.