Léal Souvenir

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Léal Souvenir, oil on oak, 33.3 cm × 18.9 cm. National Gallery, London

Léal Souvenir[1] (or Timotheus or Portrait of a Man) is a small 1432 oil-on-oak panel portrait by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck. The sitter has not been identified, but his individualistic features suggest a historical person rather than the hypothetical ideal usual in contemporary northern Renaissance portraiture;[2] there is a contradiction between his unassuming appearance and deceptively sophisticated expression. The portrait is set within an imitation parapet which contains three layers of painted inscriptions, each rendered look as if chiseled onto stone.[3] Van Eyck did not have full command of either classical Greek or Latin, and made errors, so readings by modern scholars are divided. The first inscription is in a form of Greek and seems to spell "TYΜ.ωΘΕΟC", which has not been satisfactorily interpreted but has inspired some to title the work Timotheus. The middle lettering is in French, reads "Leal Souvenir" (Loyal Memory) and indicates that the portrait is commemorative, completed after the man's death. The third records van Eyck's signature and the date of execution in somewhat legalese wording, prompting some to think the man was involved in that profession.[4]

The sitter's features have been described as "plain and rustic", yet he is presented as thoughtful and inward-looking. A number of art historians have detected mournfulness in his expression, perhaps as art historian Erwin Panofsky suggests, he suffers from "loneliness". The panel was acquired in 1857 by the National Gallery, London, where it is on permanent display.[5] He was apparently significant enough a member of the Burgundian prince Philip the Good's circle that his court painter would have portrayed him and aligned him with a figure from antiquity. The 19th-century art historian Hippolyte Fierens Gevaert identified the lettering "TYΜ.ωΘΕΟC"[6] with the Greek musician Timotheus of Miletus. Panofsky drew the same conclusion, eliminating other Greeks bearing the name Timothy; they were of religious or military background, professions that do not match the dress of the sitter. Panofsky believed the man was probably a highly placed musician in Philip's court. More recent research focuses on the apparent legalese of the inscriptions, and favours the idea that the man was a legal adviser to the crown,[7] perhaps even reporting to van Eyck himself.[6]


Léal Souvenir is one of the earliest surviving examples of secular portraiture in medieval European art and one of the earliest extant unidealised representations. This is apparent in its realism and acute observation of the details of the man's everyday appearance. Van Eyck worked in the early Renaissance tradition, and pioneered the manipulation of oil paint. Oil allows smooth translucent surfaces, and could be applied across a range of thicknesses. It could be manipulated while wet, allowing far more subtle detail than available to previous generations of painters.[8][9][10]


Tombstone of the soldier Tiberius Julius Pancuius. See also Fayum mummy portraits

The parapet simulates marked or scarred stone. The decay allows van Eyck to display his skill at mimicking stone chiseling.[3] The construct evidences the influence of classical Roman funerary art, particularly stone memorials. The parapet serves a number of functions; mostly it provides a sense of gravitas; the illusion of chips and cracks conveying a sense of the venerable, or according to art historian Elisabeth Dhanens, a sense of the "fragility of life or of memory itself".[11]

The man's torso is undersized compared to his head, and that the parapet dominates the portrait,[12] and given that the work is[13] only the second of van Eyck's known portraits, speculate if this is due to inexperience and poor design. Meiss wonders if he didn't "lose control of [the] design as a whole by indulging his astounding virtuosity."[14] The panel's ground is made from chalk. Infrared photography shows traces of short vertical hatching, and underdrawings of the face, arms and hands, which were repositioned in the final painting – originally the fingers were shorter, his right thumb was raised and the parapet was lower. Analysis of the pigment shows that the flesh of his face is painted with whites and vermilion, and traced with greys, blacks, blues and some ultramarine over a red-lake glaze.[15]


Copy of Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of Philip the Good, c. 1445. Here Philip is captured in a similar but inverted pose. Like in van Eyck's panel, the scroll is inscribed on the outside with fictive writing/inscriptions.[16]

The man is positioned within an undefined narrow space and set against a flat black background. Typically for van Eyck, the head is large in relation to the torso. He is dressed in typically Burgundian fashion, with a red robe and a green wool chaperon with a bourrelet and cornette hanging forward. The headdress is trimmed with fur, fastened with two buttons, and extends to the parapet.[17] His right hand might be holding the end of the cornette.[15] Neither the shape of his head nor his facial features correspond to contemporary standard types, let alone canons of ideal beauty. The sitter appears to be bald, although there are some faint traces of fair hair, leading Erwin Panofsky to conclude that his "countenance is as 'Nordic' as his dress is Burgundian."[18] He has neither eyebrows nor stubble, while it is believed the eyelashes were added by a 19th-century restorer.[15] Van Eyck's cool observation of the man's narrow shoulders, pursed lips and thin eyebrows extends to detailing the moisture on his blue eyes.[17] He holds a scroll that might be a legal document, letter or pamphlet. In his early portraits, van Eyck's sitters are often shown holding objects indicative of their profession.[12] The scroll contains six lines of illegible writing. The abbreviations are more prominent and seem to be in Latin, but may be vernacular.[6]

Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy, c.1435. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin. Van Eyck's early portraits typically show the sitter holding an emblem of his profession and class.[19]

Light falls from the left, leaving traces of shadow on the side of his face, a device commonly found in van Eyck's early portraits.[20] The man is youthful, his face has a soft fleshiness achieved through shallow curves and flowing harmonious brushstrokes giving the appearance of a relaxed, warm and open personality, which Meiss describes as evoking an almost "Rembrandtesque warmth and sympathy."[20] The man is not handsome; he has a flattish face, stubby yet pointed nose and cheekbones that might, according to Panofsky, belong to a "Flemish peasant."[21] Dhanens describes him as having a "snub" nose, "prominent" cheek bones, and an honest expression.[11]

A number of art historians have noted the apparent contradictions in the man's plain looks and enigmatic expression. Meiss describes him as "plain and rustic", and finds resemblance between his rather generic face and a number of figures in the lower portions of the "Adoration of the Lamb" panel in the Ghent Altarpiece.[22] He concedes to Panofsky's view, observing a "thoughtfulness on the high, wrinkled forehead, visionary force in the dreamy yet steady eyes, [and] a formidable strength of passion in the wide, firm mouth." According to Panofsky, the man's face is not that of an intellectual, yet he detects a pensive and lonely nature, "the face of one who feels and produces rather than observes and dissects."[21] Unlike Rogier van der Weyden, who pays especially close attention to detail in the rendering of his model's fingers, to van Eyck hands were often something of an afterthought.[23] They are generically rendered, do not contain much detail and may have been a later addition by his workshop. Yet they are very similar to those of the sitter in his c. 1435 Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy. Given the clutched scroll, it is accepted that he was a legal professional for the Dukes of Burgundy,[24] and given van Eyck's high position, may worked as agent for the artist.[6] In either case, although he is not grandly dressed and is probably a member of the middle class, he must have been highly regarded in Philip's court, given that such portraits rarely depicted non-nobles.[20]

Inscriptions and identity of sitter[edit]

Detail showing the three levels of inscriptions

The parapet has three horizontal layers of inscription, with smaller lettering on the top and lower levels that is often not visible in reproductions. In places the Greek characters are unclear, and have been widely speculated on by art historians, not least due to van Eyck's sometimes erratic spelling and unusual spacings.[3] Panofsky notes that many of the errors in the work appear in Byzantine script, most likely was his source, while in instances there are no definitive formations of characters for some of the constructs he appears to be use.[3]

The top lettering is in chalk white and in Greek script reads "TYΜ.ωΘΕΟC". However the last character is deliberately concealed by a chip in the imitation stone, a touch described by Panofsky as a "terminal flourish".[3] This makes the meaning of the inscription overall difficult to discern. A general consensus has formed that the final character is a square C or sigma sign. Campbell cautions that the inscriptions are in Greek indicates their meaning was probably intended "to be obscure", and that there may be a significant reason why the final character is partially illegiable in such a deliberate way. He cautions that it is "rash to attempt to supply the missing verb".[25]

Detail showing the uppermost layer of inscription. Note the punctuation after the third character, and that the final is deliberately obscured

"TYΜ.ωΘΕΟC" was interpreted in 1857 by Charles Eastlake as "Timotheos", a proper name.[18] However, if this was the intended meaning, more correct lettering would have read "TIM.OΘEOC", which suggests van Eyck introduced spelling errors.[26] One proposal is the inscription meant to read "Honour God", or "Be Honored, O God", written in the passive imperative.[27] Panofsky considers the hypothesis that the final letter is a "N", and that the lettering forms two words rather than one. In this interpretation, the letters spell TYΜω ΘΕΟN, meaning "Honour God". While he admires the convenience of the interpretation, and the fact that it would make explanation more straightforward than if we accept "Timotheus", he rejects the possibility. He writes that "the presence of a shorter horizontal line connecting with the slightly tapering top of the vertical stroke and completing it into a Γ form ... evidently precludes a "N".[28] Dhanens suggests the inscription can be read as "Time Deum" ("Fear God"), a known motto of the Vilain family.[29]

Eastlake's translation as "Timotheos" is generally accepted, although the possibility of it being a variant of "Timothy" has been discounted, as that word was not used in Northern Europe before the Reformation. There is no Germanic name which might, given the lettering in which it inscribed, imply a humanistic imitation of a Greek word.[30] As such, art historians have sought to identify the man from Greek history or legend. Although some have advanced Athenian and Syrian generals, these have been discounted as the sitter is not wearing military clothing.[18] Saint Timothy, first Bishop of Ephesus and associate of Saint Paul, has been suggested but eliminated as he is not dressed as a high cleric.[18]

Martin le Franc, Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois, c. 1440s

The larger middle inscription is in French, using a 12th-century script. It reads "LEAL SOVVENIR" (Loyal Remembrance, or Faithful Souvenir),[24][31] and painted to give the impression that it was carved into the parapet.[7] In 1927, Hippolyte Fierens Gevaert put forward Timotheus of Miletus, a Greek musician and dithyrambic poet born c. 446. Gevaert held that the portrait was a commemoration of a court artist who had recently died, and that the classical reference was intended to flatter his memory. Panofsky largely went with this position in 1949. He speculated that the sitter was the celebrated musician Gilles Binchois, by 1430 a canon at St. Donatian's Cathedral, Bruges.[16] Campbell is skeptical, disclaiming that the sitter "is not dressed as a cleric".[32] Other theories include that the man was a Greek or Lucchese merchant, Henry the Navigator, Jean de Croÿ, or, less likely, that it is a self-portrait. Though much disagreement exists, it is probable that he was a native French speaker, and a notary, poet or member of the Compagnie du Chapel Vert ("Society of the Green Hat") at Tournai.[32] Elisabeth Dhanens rejectes the theory that the man was a musician on the basis that van Eyck would have made this explicit, portraying him holding a device or emblem clearly symbolizing music. She concludes that he is an accountant or lawyer holding a legal or financial document.[29]

From the first two inscriptions the panel is generally accepted as a posthumous portrait. Roman tombstones often showed a representation of the deceased behind a parapet with a carved inscription, and van Eyck may have known of these from travels to France.[2] The lower inscription reads "Actu[m] an[n]o d[omi]ni.1432.10.die ocobris.a.ioh[anne] de Eyck" (These are done in the year of our Lord 1432 on the 10th day of October by Jan van Eyck).[24] Campbell observes that the phrasing of this extended signature is surprisingly reminiscent of legalese, and that van Eyck seems to be reinforcing that the man was a legal professional.[25] Jacques Paviot notes that it is written in the Gothic cursive script Bastarda, then favoured by the legal trade.[6]


The panel consists of a single 8mm (0.3 in) vertically cut oak board, cut down close to the painted surface. It has a small unpainted area at the upper left. The support's encasing was probably changed in the 19th century; today four of the eight supports are fixed to the edges of the interior borders, forming inner mouldings. The other four act as inner pins. The varnish is severely degraded, with key areas of paint and ground either removed or overpainted. Infrared photography of the reverse reveals underdrawings, but they do not give any hint as to the identity of the sitter. Its ground is mostly chalk based, the pigments are predominately blacks, red lake and blues. The final portrait differs in many ways from the underdrawing — the fingers are shorter, his right arm once extended over a larger area. In the final portrait the ear is elevated, and the scroll occupies a larger pictorial space.[15]

It is not particularly well preserved. There are yellowish layers of glaze over the face, probably later additions. The varnishes have degraded and lost their original colors. The panel has undergone a number of detrimental retouchings. In instances these have altered the sitter's appearance, most especially the removal of strands of fair hair below the chaperon. It has sustained structural damage, especially to the marble on the reverse. The National Gallery repaired some "slight injuries" when it came into their possession in 1857. Campbell notes a number of efforts by later restorers were imperfect and "rather disfiguring", including touchings to the man's nostrils, eyelashes and tip of his nose. There is a yellowish glaze over the eyes that seems to be either damage or overpaint. The panel is discoloured overall and suffers from aged and degenerated varnishes which make the original pigments hard to discern.[15]


The painting was widely copied and imitated during the 15th century. Near exact copper reproductions were recorded in Bergamo and Turin. Petrus Christus borrowed the illusionistic carving on the parapet for his 1446 Portrait of a Carthusian.[33] A c. 1449–50 portrait of Marco Barbarigo attributed to a follower of van Eyck is heavily indebted, in that it is also unusually tall and narrow, with a large space above the sitter's head.[25]

Follower of Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Marco Barbarigo, c. 1449–50. National Gallery, London

The painting is first recorded in the National Gallery's collector and later director Charles Eastlake's notes from its acquisition that year. He mentions that it had been in the possession of the Scottish landscape painter Karl Ross (1816–58) "before 1854". Like many of van Eyck's works and those of the Early Netherlandish painters in general, the painting's provenance is murky before the 19th century. Two near-contemporary copies in copper were recorded that year in Bergamo and Turin when the National Gallery was verifying attribution. The first was found by Eastlake in the collection of the Lochis family of Bergamo in Italy. A second copy was located in Turin, belonging to a Count Castellane Harrach, also on copper and described as smaller than the original, and "very weak". Both are now lost.[15]

Ink markings on the marble reverse show a small cross which may record a merchant's mark or emblem. Although it is incomplete and no identification has been made, W. H. J. Weale detected the mark of "an early Italian, probably Venetian owner".[34] An early provenance in Italy would not imply that the man came from that country; van Eyck's works were often purchased by collectors from that region.[32]



  1. ^ The painting is usually titled Léal Souvenir, although the inscription after which it is named does not contain a diacritic
  2. ^ a b Smith, 42
  3. ^ a b c d e Panofsky, 80
  4. ^ Bauman, 37
  5. ^ "Portrait of a Man ('Léal Souvenir')". National Gallery. Retrieved 20 April 2013
  6. ^ a b c d e Pavio, 212
  7. ^ a b Wood, 650
  8. ^ Smith, 61
  9. ^ Jones, 10–11
  10. ^ Borchert, 22
  11. ^ a b Dhanens, 182
  12. ^ a b Pächt, 110
  13. ^ Apart from the dual portraits of the donors in his Ghent Altarpiece which were probably completed in 1431 or in the early months of the following year
  14. ^ Meiss, 138
  15. ^ a b c d e f Campbell, 218
  16. ^ a b Campbell, 223
  17. ^ a b Kemperdick, 19
  18. ^ a b c d Panofsky, 82
  19. ^ Upton, 27
  20. ^ a b c Meiss, 137
  21. ^ a b Panofsky, 88
  22. ^ Meiss, 144
  23. ^ Kemperdick notes that Hans Holbein the Younger "used the same pair of hands for many of his portraits, so that they look much the same on 70-year-old William Warham and Anne Lovell, forty years his junior." Kemperdick, 20
  24. ^ a b c Borchert, 36
  25. ^ a b c Campbell, 222
  26. ^ Paviot, 214
  27. ^ Paviot, 215
  28. ^ Panofsky, 80-81
  29. ^ a b Dhanens, 184
  30. ^ Panofsky, 81
  31. ^ Bauman, 35
  32. ^ a b c Campbell, 220
  33. ^ "Jan van Eyck". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 18 October 2014
  34. ^ Weale, 109


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