In the collection of the present owner's family for at least two hundred years.
The engaging subject is entirely typical of this unknown master, who seems to have specialised in small-scale panels in a courtly style depicting elegant women reading, writing or making music in intimate interiors. His most ambitious surviving work in this vein is the celebrated Three women musicians
in the Harrach Collection in Schloss Rohrau in Austria, from which he takes his name. In temperament and taste the works of the Master of the Female Half-Lengths reflect the influence of Bruges painters such as Adriaen Isenbrandt or Ambrosius Benson as well as those in Brussels such as Bernard van Orley, but he is most generally thought to have worked in Antwerp. Devotional and mythological works as well as a number of landscapes have also been assigned to his hand.1
In all, over a hundred works in all forms are ascribed to him or, more correctly, his workshop, which probably consisted of several hands. One devotional work, a Holy Family
formerly in the Rush collection in New York, which seems to be a mature synthesis of the styles of Van Orley and Pieter Coecke van Aelst, is dated 1536.2
Despite the popularity of his works, his identity has never been established. An early attempt by Otto Benesch to identify him with the Bruges painter Hans Vereyck on the basis of a landscape drawing in the Louvre did not find critical acceptance.3
This is one of the most accomplished designs painted by the Master, the charm and technical skill of which evidently met with widespread contemporary approval, for at least seventeen variants have survived. Virtually all of them show a fashionably attired lady turned to the right, writing at a table, with a window behind her to the left. Within this scheme the pictures differ widely in the details of the composition. The presence of the gilt cup and cover in the majority of versions led Friedländer and others to suggest that the young ladies represented the Magdalene.
1. For the fullest discussion of the sources of his artistic personality see M. J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, vol. XII, Leiden and Brussels 1975, pp. 18–21, and 134.
2. See, E. Konowitz, ‘The Master of the female Half Lengths Group, Eclecticism and Novelty’, in Oud Holland, vol. 113, 1999, Nr. 1/2, pp. 1–12, reproduced fig. 2.
3. O. Benesch, ‘The name of the Master of the Half-Lengths’, in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, LXXXV, 1943, pp. 269–82.