Portrait of an Old Woman, 1468–1470
Hans Memling, Netherlandish, 1430/40–1494
Oil on wood
Panel: 10 1/8 × 7 in. (25.7 × 17.8 cm) Frame: 14 × 11 1/4 in. (35.6 × 28.6 cm)
The Edith A. and Percy S. Straus Collection
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Portrait of an Old Woman
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.
Connecting to the Work of Art
In the 15th century, the Flemish city of Bruges, in present-day Belgium, was a major center for painting. Born in Germany in the 1430s, Hans Memling probably arrived in Bruges around 1459 and worked with Rogier van der Weyden, the city’s official painter. After Rogier’s death in 1464, Memling became the leading painter in Bruges. Memling painted altarpieces and portraits for Bruges’ leading citizens and for the Italian merchants and bankers in the city. In 1480 he is listed as one of the richest citizens in Bruges. Memling had an active workshop and trained many artists. When he died in 1494, he was the city’s most respected artist.
The elderly woman in this very early work by Memling has not been identified. However, Portrait of an Old Man by Memling, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is generally believed to represent this woman’s husband. The two portraits may have been commissioned to represent a long and successful marriage. Much of the art produced at this time was religious in subject, and portraits had long appeared as part of devotional or religious images. In Memling’s time, the middle class began to commission portraits, following the traditions of the aristocracy. This unusual, sensitive portrait of an old woman belongs to a tradition of independent portraits of middle-class subjects that flourished in Holland and Flanders in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Memling presents a close-up view of the woman’s head and shoulders. The face is shown in three-quarter’s view facing toward the left. The large white veil frames the woman’s face and extends to the edges of the painting. The painting has a quiet, introspective mood. The woman’s eyes are downcast, her lips closed. She seems unaware of the viewer and appears lost in thought. Memling used a palette of white, black, and pale flesh tones to enhance the portrait’s somber mood.
One of the greatest developments in 15th-century Flemish painting was the use of linseed oil, pressed from the seeds of flax plants, as the binding medium for pigments. The slow drying oil paints allowed Memling to blend the areas of light and shadow in the face, creating subtle gradations of tone. The delicate shadows contrast with areas of light to convincingly suggesting three dimensions. Touches of opaque white paint create highlights on the nose, chin, and veil. The lustrous quality of the skin results from superimposed layers of translucent oil paint. Memling probably began with a layer of opaque paint then brushed over it thin layers of lightly tinted oil paints called glazes. Light passes through the translucent glazes until it reaches the layer of opaque paint. Then it is reflected back to the viewer. This glazing technique creates a richness of tone that is unique to oil painting. Although the surface of this painting has suffered from harsh cleaning in the past, the unique qualities of oil paint are still visible.
- Look closely at the colors that Memling uses in this portrait. Is the white cloth really white? What colors are present?
- What clues do we have about this woman and her identity? Look closely at her dress and facial expression. What kind of person was she? How old is she in this painting?
- Look at the way that Memling applied the paint. How does he shift from one color to the next? Where can you see his brushstrokes? What kind of painter do you think he was—careful? Speedy? Prolific? Exacting? Use the way he painted this portrait as evidence.
- What mood does this painting present? Use visual clues such as color scheme, composition, and characterization to defend your answer.
- This painting is thought to be half of a pair, with a portrait of an old man (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). It is likely that they were commissioned as a marriage commemoration. To commission a pair of portraits from Memling, one of the most respected artists in the city, would have been a grand statement. What do you think the couple was trying to communicate about their marriage?
- Before Memling’s time, most of the artwork made in the Flemish tradition was religious in nature, such as altarpieces or portraits of saints to keep in wealthy homes. After Memling’s time, many citizens outside of the church and the upper class began to commission portraits of themselves. What historical or social conditions might have made this possible?
• Experiment with different kinds of paint to learn about the choices available to artists. Create a simple composition using tempera paints. Now try the same composition using oil paints. Keep an artist’s journal of how the different paints handle and the effects that each can (or cannot) create most effectively.
• Research the history of Flanders in the 15th century and write a short essay or poem imagining the life of the woman depicted by Memling. What would her daily tasks have been? What hardships would she have faced? What role might religion have played in her life?
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