This powerful and somewhat enigmatic portrait of a blue-eyed elderly man with a day's growth of stubble has for most of the last century been given to The Master of the Legend of Saint Augustine, an artist presumed to have been active in Bruges in the early 16th Century. The pale background and colour scheme of this painting make it unlikely that it is the work of a Netherlandish artist, and one wonders if the attribution was not made by Friedänder on the basis of a black and white photograph.
This portrait presents close similarities with another formerly on the Berlin art market, attributed with reservations by Ernst Buchner to the Master of the Life of the Virgin, an artist influenced by Netherlandish art, who was active in Cologne and the Lower Rhine circa
Were the status of this now lost portrait clearer, an attribution of the present work would probably be easier to make. There are less obvious similarities with another portrait, of an architect, now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, which was attributed to the Master with more confidence, and is still thought to be by him: both however show similarities with portraits of donors in altarpieces by the Master of the Life of the Virgin.2The traditional attribution
Friedländer listed three portraits in his article on The Bruges Master of the Legend of Saint Augustine, and included them in his addendum to the catalogue of the artist’s works in the revised and expanded edition of Early Netherlandish Paintings
. The artist, whose Notname
(nickname) is now usually shortened to exclude Bruges, the city of his presumed activity, is named after a dismembered altarpiece depicting episodes from the eponymous Saint’s life, of which the surviving panels are divided between New York and Dublin, with a fragmentary reverse in Aachen.3
The problem with the attribution of the three portrait panels to this Master is twofold: none of them strongly resembles the faces in the New York and Dublin panels, and all three are evidently by different hands. One, formerly in the Del Monte collection in Brussels, appears from photographs to be either of poor quality or in a poor state of preservation. The outstanding and well-preserved Vanitas
portrait in Sibiu has been much discussed. Most latter-day scholars see little connection with the eponymous St Augustine Legend panels. Fritz Koreny and Till-Holger Borchert noted the influence of Hugo van der Goes, and Jan de Maere saw it as close in style to Michel Sittow, a painter originally from the Baltic region who is presumed to have studied in Bruges, and an artist known for his portraits.4
Most recently, Valentine Hendricks proposed an identification as a self-portrait by Aelbert Bouts.5
It seems most unlikely however that the painter of the Sibiu portrait was also responsible for the present one, despite some similarities, for example in the treatment of the eyes. The handling of the face is most expressive, but is less refined and more direct, the sitter’s rough stubble and his eyebrows painted with short staccato brushstrokes of grey and white rather than as grey glazes.
Infra-red imaging (see fig. 1) reveals under-drawing in the form of short strokes of hatching, and outlines drawn to the left side of the face, the nose and the sitter’s ear.
1. See E. Buchner, Das Deutsche Bildnis der Spätgotik und der frühen Dürerzeit, Berlin 1953, pp. 32–33, no. 11, reproduced plate 10.
2. Idem, pp. 30–33, no. 10, reproduced plate 11, and figs 1 and 2.
3. M. Sprinson de Jesús, in M.W. Ainsworth and K. Christiansen (eds), From Van Eyck to Bruegel, exhibition catalogue, New York 1998, pp. 128–32, no. 16, reproduced.
4. J. de Maere, Bruegel Memling Van Eyck, exhibition catalogue, Paris 2009, pp. 68–69, reproduced, with earlier opinions cited.
5. V. Hendricks, Blut und Tränen, exhibition catalogue, Aachen 2017, pp. 56–59, no. 1, reproduced.