Such devotional half-length depictions of the Virgin and Child are thought to have been introduced into the Netherlands around 1450 by Rogier van der Weyden, who established an artistic tradition that influenced generations of artists to follow him, among the most prominent being Petrus Christus and Dieric Bouts. Indeed, the tender design of the present work seems to derive from a Rogierian source, one that has perhaps now been lost. The elongated face of the Virgin, the ornately trimmed veil, and the sinuous Christ holding a precious prayer book can be compared to those found in Rogier van der Weyden’s Virgin and Child in Half Length of circa 1460-64 in the Huntington Art Collections in San Marino, California.1 A similar motif of the Madonna Lactans appears in another half-length depiction of the Virgin and Child given to the Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden in the Art Institute of Chicago.2 Additionally, the theme of the child clasping the cross is repeated in a few examples recorded by Max Friedländer as relating to this artist, including one painting given to a Follower of Rogier van der Weyden in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.3 The success of Rogier's designs and the many iterations they inspired among artists from the second half of the sixteenth century onward bears witness to the impact and enduring appeal of these new types of half-length devotional images dedicated to the Virgin and her Son, and the present panel is an excellent example of the dissemination of his pictorial tradition.
That all of the figures in the present work face in one direction towards the right suggest that they very likely once served as the left wing of a small devotional diptych. When it may have been separated from its counterpart is unknown, but by the time it entered the Spitzer Collection (see Provenance), two wings had been added to flank the right and left of this panel to create a small triptych. These later wings were arranged in two registers with the Masses of Saint Gregory and Saint Christopher on the left and Saint George slaying the Dragon and Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata on the right. By the time of its exhibition in 1934 (see Exhibition), these later wings had been removed.
Although the figures within this painting are very well preserved, the punched gilding of the background was perhaps added at a later date.
Dendrochronological analysis of the Baltic oak panel undertaken by Ian Tyers upholds an early dating for this painting. His report indicates that the panel dates from after circa 1419.
1. Inv. no. 26.105, oil on panel, 49.5 by 32 cm. See D. d Vos, Rogier van der Weyden, New York 1999, p. 321, cat. no. 32, reproduced p. 322.
2. Inv. no. 1933.1052, oil on panel, 38.4 by 28.3 cm. See ibid., pp. 356-357, cat. no. B4A, reproduced p. 357. A copy of the same composition by Dieric Bouts is recorded in the National Gallery, London: inv. no. 2595, oil on panel, 38.3 by 29 cm. See C. Périer-D’Ieteren, Dieric Bouts, Brussels 2006, p. 267, cat. no. 12, reproduced.
3. Inv. no. 321, oil on panel transferred to canvas, 66 by 47.9 cm, John G. Johnson Collection. See M.J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Paintings, vol. II, Rogier van der Weyden and the Master of Flemalle, Leiden 1967, p. 68, no. 40Aa. Other examples of this theme recorded by Friedländer are found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. no. 32.100.44) and one formerly in the Traumann Collection, Madrid, See ibid., p. 68, cat. nos. 40A and 40Ab, both reproduced plate 64.
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