oil on Baltic oak panel, unframed
Giuseppe Felice Bertalazzone, Conte d’Arrache, Turin (d.1854);
By inheritence to his nephew Conte Lorenzo Castellani Varzi;
His sale, Paris, Drouot, 28 February – 1 March 1859, lot 46 (as Hemling [J.]);
Where purchased by Marshall Woods;
By whom given to his son-in-law S.A.B. Abbott, 25 December 1874 (from labels on the reverse);
Thence by descent in the family to the present owners.
The discovery of Memling’s Christ Blessing is a remarkable event for the field of early Netherlandish painting. The picture, which has remained in the same family for more than 150 years, was unknown to scholars and collectors alike. A significant devotional panel by one of the most influential and important artists working in Flanders in the late fifteenth century, it adds to our understanding of Memling and his working methods.
The subject derives from Jan van Eyck's portraits of The Holy Face and the closely related image of the Salvator Mundi that Rogier van der Weyden introduced in his Bracque triptych, of circa 1452, now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. By the last quarter of the century it had become a popular theme. Memling himself painted two other versions of the subject, both of similar size, one in the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, the other in the Museum of Fine Art, Boston.1 They differ signficantly from traditional depictions of Christ Blessing in that Christ does not hold a crossed orb or wear a coronet, the attributes of his power over the world. There is a simplicity and humility to these representations, with their dark, undefined backgrounds, and Christ’s unadorned robes that directly engages the viewer. Dirk De Vos suggests that in both pictures Memling creates a portrait of Christ, presenting him not so much as God but as a man standing in a window, visible to all.2
Here, as in the Pasadena and Boston paintings, Christ is shown in bust length, his right hand raised in blessing, his left resting on an unseen ledge. In the present work, however, Memling sets him against a gilded background ringed with clouds, thus moving him from a mundane setting to a celestial one. This was not Memling’s first idea for the composition; when the picture was examined under the microscope, it was discovered that the original background was blue, a deep cerulean above gradually changing to nearly white below, thus creating the appearance of a brightly lit sky.3 At some point while he was painting the Christ Blessing, Memling covered the sky over with gold leaf and added the surrounding clouds. It is impossible to know the reason why he made the change – it could have been at the suggestion of whoever commissioned the picture – but the more formal gold ground and surrounding clouds link the panel to Memling’s Three Panels with Christ as Salvator Mundi Amongst Musical Angels, in the Koninkijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, datable to 1487-1490.
The various scholars who have all examined the present work first hand believe it was made either shortly after the Boston painting, which is dated 1481 on its frame, or sometime between 1480 and 1485. It is difficult to establish a chronology for Memling’s paintings, because his style was relatively consistent throughout his career, however Maryan Ainsworth and de Vos note a greater freedom of handling appearing in his work after around 1484.4 In Christ Blessing Memling creates the planes of Christ’s face with minute strokes, blending them almost invisibly into each other. The individual curls of the beard are precisely drawn, with a tannish brown pigment for the topmost strands catching the light painted on top of the darker brown body of the beard. It is only in places like the eye lids or the finger nails that Memling uses a heavier stroke to highlight and clarify the surfaces.
The stylistic evolution of the underdrawings in Memling’s panels is perhaps easier to track than the paintings themselves. In his earliest pictures he made these preliminary drawings in brush and black pigment but later used charcoal or black chalk. In addition, the drawing becomes looser in the later works as Memling developed a kind of shorthand for himself. An infrared photograph of the Christ Blessing shows Memling working with remarkable freedom and verve (see. fig. 1). The underdrawing extends throughout the whole panel. He seems to have quickly established the main elements of Christ’s features, but the placement of the hands was more problematic. He revised the composition as he was painting so that in the finished work the blessing hand is more upright and the fingers of the other hand slightly more flexed. The folds of drapery, however, are a jumbled mass of bold lines increasingly more difficult to decipher as they reach the edges of the composition.
A date in the first half of the 1480s for Christ Blessing is also supported by the dendrochronological examination of the panel, which in this case is unusually precise. The board from which the panel was cut extends quite far into the sap wood – nearly to the bark itself – which means that virtually all the growth rings are visible. We can actually see the difference between the heartwood and the sapwood by looking at the top edge of the panel: the color of the wood is lighter and the spacing between the rings changes at the right. According to this analysis, the tree would have been felled between 1458 and 1471. Although it is difficult to be certain how long the wood was stored before it was shaped into a panel and then used by Memling, that range is consistent with a dating of circa 1480 to 1485.5
Christ Blessing is not included in any of the literature on Memling. We have been unable to trace it back further than the 19th century, though a label on the reverse in what appears to be a 17th century hand, inscribed Luca d'Olanda (Lucas van Leyden), suggests an earlier Italian provenance. The Doria family archives record a Testa di Cristo by Lucas belonging to Giovanni Carlo Doria on a document in Genoa from circa 1617-1621. Doria was one of the most important collectors in Genoa in the early 17th century and is known to us from a magnificent portrait by Rubens. His collection included works from the late 15th and 16th centuries along with contemporary 17th century paintings. As Memling had a number of Italian patrons, it is tempting to think that Christ Blessing may be identical with the Doria picture. However, its first documented appearance is in the sale of the collection of Conte Lorenzo Castellani Varzi, in Paris in 1859. Castellani was the nephew of the Comte d’Arache and inherited the picture upon his death in 1854. In the auction the picture was described as by “Hemling (J.)," an old name for Memling who was not well known in the mid-19th century. It was bought at the auction by Dr. Marshall Woods (1824-1899), of Providence, Rhode Island. Woods was a trustee of Brown University and served as an official at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, for which he received the Cross of the Legion of Honor. According to the label on the reverse of the panel, on Christmas 1874, Woods gave the painting to his son-in-law S.A.B. Abbott, who was later a director of the American Academy in Rome. It has remained in the same family until it came to light just a few months ago.
The picture was extremely dirty when it was discovered and was given a light cleaning (see figs. 2 and 3). However, the panel and painted surface are remarkably well preserved, which allows us to appreciate the subtlety and refinement of Memling’s technique. There is a barbe and unpainted border all around the image indicating that it originally had an engaged frame. It is for that reason that the very tips of the three middle fingers on Christ’s left hand are missing, for they would have actually been painted on the frame, thus bringing him into our space. The reverse of the panel is covered with a thin, dark layer of paint, contemporary with the composition on the front, the probably to protect the wood and balance the moisture level between recto and verso. There are also a number of notes and labels whose meaning we have not yet deciphered, but which we hope will eventually lead to a more complete understanding of its history.
We are grateful to Dr. Maryan W. Ainsworth, Till-Holger Borchert, Peter van den Brink and Prof. Dr. Maximiliaan Martens for each independently endorsing the attribution to Memling based on first hand inspection. Dr. Maryan W. Ainsworth has an article in preparation on the present work, Till-Holger Borchert has also expressed his intention to publish the painting.
1. Both are reproduced in D. De Vos, Hans Memling: The Complete Works, Ghent 1994, pp. 143 and 233, respectively. They measure 38.1 by 28.2 cm and 34.8 by 26.2.
2. Ibid., p. 142.
3. Please see detailed condition report by Karen E. Thomas, which accompanies this cataloguing note.
4. M.W. Ainsworth, “Minimal Means, Remarkable Results; Memling’s Portrait Painting Technique,” in Memling’s Portraits, exhibition catalogue, Ghent and Amsterdam 2005, pp. 102-104.
5. For more detailed information on dendrochronology and the dating of Memling’s painting see P. Klein, “Dendrochronological Analysis of Panels Attributed to Hans Memling,” in Memling’s Portraits, exhibition catalogue, Ghent and Amsterdam 2005, pp. 180-181.
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