Meddling with Memling’s Portinari Portrait

Today we’ll focus on the marvelous Hans Memling. This Netherlandish fellow became active in 1465 in Bruges where he was an artistic sensation! He created many altarpieces and portraits for wealthy patrons. Memling’s Portinari portrait is one such notable work. Alongside discussing wealth, status, and religion, I’ll unveil the paintings missing piece, illusions, and oil-aging phenomenon! 

Are you intrigued?

The Portinari Fortune

Tommaso and Maria Portinari, Hans Memling, credit: The Met

The lovely couple Memling painted are none other than Tommaso di Folco Portinari and his wife Maria Portinari. Mr. Portinari most likely had these portraits made in commemoration of their marriage in 1470. In Bruges, Tommaso was a branch manager of the Medici Bank. Oooh, fancy job, no? It certainly explains why this painting alludes to the Portinari’s wealth and higher status.  

The Portinari’s wealth shines most clearly through Maria’s fur-trimmed, velvet gown and elaborate necklace. In fact, the necklace was made of gold thread, pearls, and semi-precious stones. Talk about expensive! A higher social status typically follows lots of wealth. Interestingly, the dark, plain background of the painting was the favored setting for court portraits. It definitely hints at the Portinari’s upward social mobility. Their clothing also fits in with the time’s high fashion. No commoners to be found here! Did you know Tommaso also advised the Duke of Burgundy? Yep, they definitely wanted the painting to show their wealth and status. 

Piety & the Missing Piece of the Puzzle

Theoretical reconstruction of the Portinari Triptych with Memling’s ‘Virgin and Child’ (National Gallery), Reconstruction by Timothy Newbery and Evan Read

Memling’s Portinari portrait originally was a triptych, a three-sectioned paintingWith two out of three displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where (and what) is the missing third piece? Well, within the halls of the National Gallery, there lies Memling’s Virgin and Child painting, our missing piece! This painting depicts the Virgin Mary and Christ as a child. Mary is richly dressed as she holds Christ resting on a white cushion. Gold rays around her head emphasize her divinity.  

Centrally placed, the Portinari’s devotion to religion couldn’t be clearer. They are literally close to God! Even without the centerpiece, the Portinari’s express their piety towards God by praying. Also, do you see baby Christ’s hand reaching towards Mr. Portinari? Maybe he’s getting ready to bless the good Tommaso!  

Is Memling a Magician?

You’ve probably seen a magician perform illusions. But they’re not the only ones who like to play with our eyes! Memling made his portraits as real as possible. He even made the Portinari’s pop out at us just like 3D! He does this through illusionistic frames which suggest that the figures project into our visual space. In other words, they are propelled forward like they are really there. You’ll see this most clearly with Maria’s hand and hat drapery which appear in front (or sticking out) of the frame.  

Memling’s attention to detail contributes to the realism as well! For instance, he shows a slight nick in Tommaso’s chin, his emerging beard, wrinkles, and the individually painted hairs on his eyebrows! Overall, Memling achieves a balance between idealization and realism. 

The Toll of Time

As an oil painting, time took its toll on Memling’s Portinari portrait. When oil paint ages, it becomes more transparent and darker tones will become darker. Tones will blend. For instance, looking at Tommaso, you’ll notice that his jacket is practically blended into the dark background. Did you know that in harsh light, his jacket actually has a pattern or cut velvet? (It also fits their fancy, wealthy image!) Unfortunately, time has weathered away Tommaso’s clothing variations. Even his sleeve was originally a distinct reddish color but is now a darker plum that we can barely distinguish. 

Peeking out from layers of paint is a light outline near Maria’s head informing us that Memling originally drew Maria’s headdress more vertical before changing its position. Likewise, on Maria’s neck you’ll see a dark impression. She does not have a dirty neck! Rather, these dark shadows are evidence that her necklace was originally drawn slightly higher than it is now. In fact, this impression is likely the original necklace’s black pearls coming through the paint. 

Luckily for us, the painting retains enough detail to capture our attention!  

If you liked looking at Memling’s Portinari portrait, check out Rembrandt! He loved painting portraits of himself (some might say he was a selfie connoisseur). Oh, before I forget, for a deeper peek into religion and art, read up on Botticelli’s Annunciation. I’d also encourage you to book a treasure hunt with us! We’ll challenge you to discover more amazing artists!  

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: