Portrait of a Young Girl (Christus, Berlin)
Portrait of a Young Girl (Portrait of a French Lady in early inventories) is a small oil on oak panel painting by Flemish artist Petrus Christus. The work, dating to c. 1465–1470, is believed to be one of the artist's last and is now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. It marks a major stylistic advance in both Christus's work and that of Netherlandish portraiture, not just that the sitter is no longer set against a neutral flat background as in van Eyck's single portrait panels, but that she is placed in a such an airy three-dimensional and realistic setting. Moreover, the girl is not passive and her expression is complex: she looks directly at the viewer in an almost petulant manner, while at the same time much is held back in her reserved gaze. The painting is widely regarded as one of the most exquisite of the Northern Renaissance. Art historian Joel Upton described the lady as resembling "a polished pearl, almost opalescent, lying on a cushion of black velvet."
In this, Portrait of a Young Girl is a further development from the work of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, the two pioneers of the Early Netherlandish school to whom Christus is generally seen as the most significant successor of the second generation. The panel was highly influential in the decades after its completion. Its appeal in part lies in the sly expression of the sitter, which is accentuated by the fact that her eyes are not quite aligned while her eyebrows are slightly skewed.
The painting shows a bust length portrait of a girl with porcelain skin, almond and slightly oriental eyes and a petulant mouth. She is depicted in line with the Gothic ideal of elongated features, indicated by her narrow shoulders, tightly pinned hair, and long forehead achieved though her tighly pulled back hair which is shaved at the top. She is dressed in exquisite cloth and jewellery and possesses an unusual elegance. Christus depicts her looking out of the canvas in an oblique but self-aware and penetrating manner that some critics and historians have described as unnerving in its acuteness. Joanna Woods-Marsden remarks that a sitter acknowledging her audience in this way was virtually unprecedented in Italian portrait painting at that time.[note 1] Her acknowledgment is accuentated by the painting's crop, which focuses the viewer's gaze in a near invasive manner that seems to question the relationship between artist, model, patron and viewer.
Christus frames the girl in an almost architectural manner which is both rigid and balanced. She is placed in a narrow horizontal triangular space, while the wall behind her is largely flat. The image is divided by the right angle joining the inverted triangle formed by her dress, and the horizontal linear description of her neck, face and headdress. The rendering of the background departs somewhat from contemporary conventions in portraiture; Christus sets her against a parallel wall which is defined both in terms of material (the lower half is a wooden dado), and by its shadow, its distance from the girl. Here the model is set in a recognisable interior, naturalistic enough to be within her own home.
A soft light enters the pictorial space from the left, throwing shadows against the back wall, most notably cast from the hennin. The depth of space provided by the thinly sketched back wall gives room for the detailing of the light, which Sterling notes is indebted to van Eyck. The light that throws a murky but curved shadow on the wall behind her and acts as a counterpoint to the contour of her cheek and hairline. The curve of the tail of her head-dress is echoed and continued by the curve of her neck and shoulder.
This style of hat seems have evolved from the truncated hennin, also in fashion in Burgundy. A very similar style, with no tail, is seen on the older of two stylish girls who have donor portraits in a Presentation of Christ by the Master of the Prado Adoration of the Magi, a pupil of Rogier van der Weyden, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The black tail coming under the chin is found very rarely if at all in other images from the period, and has been interpreted as a style borrowed from the male chaperon hat, which always has a long tailing cornette, sometimes worn in this way.
Identity of the sitter
Gustav Waagen recorded lettering on frame that he said identified the sitter as, in his words, "eine Nichte des berühmten Talbots" (a niece of the famous Talbots). This reading has led to a tradition that the sitter was of a member of the English Talbot family. In 1863 George Scharf suggested that the panel was intended as the right hand wing to a diptych with the 1446 Portrait of Edward Grimston, leading to speculation that the girl might be Grimston's first wife, Alice. This was rejected in 1913 by Grete Ring, on the basis that the neither the dimensions nor backgrounds of the panels match, and that the Berlin panel was most probably completed some 20–30 years after the Grimston portrait. In addition Archibald Russell establishes that Grymeston had not married into the Talbot family.
Joel Upton supports Waagen's reading, suggesting that the "famous talbot" was John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, who was killed at the Battle of Castillon in 1453. However, this Talbot had only one niece, Ankaret, who died in infancy in 1421. Lorne Campbell suggests that, given the signature was in Latin, the identification may also have been, and that Waagen may have misinterpreted the word "nepos", which can also mean grandchild. From this Upton concludes that she was a daughter of the 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury, either Anne or Margaret. It is known their parents married between 1444 and 1445, suggesting that the sitter was under 20 years at the time of the portrait. She may have travelled to Bruges to attend the famously lavish wedding in 1468 of Margaret of York, sister of King Edward IV of England, to Charles the Bold.
When the painting was first recorded in a 1492 inventory of the Medici family, it was described as a small panel painted with the head of a French lady, coloured in oil, the work of Pietro Cresci from Bruges. However, it seems from other identified works that the scribe was uninformed and described any piece of northern art in the collection as "French". It seems to have been highly valued; it commanded an unusually high price, and was prominently displayed within the collection. The record does not address the matter of the girl's identity beyond her nationality, indicating that their interest was more in the painting's aesthetic rather than historical value.
In the 20th century Panofsky, who was instrumental in furthering Christus's reputation as a major 15th century northern painter, described the work as an "enchanting, almost French-looking portrait"; perhaps noting the resemblance to the virgin in Jean Fouquet's Melun Diptych. Sterling picks up on this, noting the many similarities between the two women, including their tightly pulled back hair, acutely drawn cheek bones, slanted eyes and sulky expressions.
It entered the Prussian royal collection with the purchase in 1821 of the Edward Solly collection, from which the recently formed Gemäldegalerie, Berlin was allowed to take its pick, including this work. It was positively identified as an original by Christus in 1825 when Gustav Waagen established the lettering on the (now lost) frame "PETR XPI" as shorthand for "Petrus Christophori", which he associated with the "Pietro Christa" mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in the 1568 edition of his "Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects". In this way, Waagan also identified the Saint Eligius panel, now in New York, marking the painter's rediscovery after centuries of obscurity. Previously, a number of his paintings had been attributed to Jan van Eyck. Waagan established that Christus had been a pupil or follower of van Eyck. He had signed a number of other works as "PETR XPI ME FECIT" (Petr Xpi made me), hence the confusion with the older painter who often signed his work with similar phraseology, mostly closely with "JOHES DE EYCK ME FECIT". Over the next century sketches of his biography were put together, while art historians slowly disentangled his works from those of van Eyck.
The painting was dated c 1446 by art historian Wolfgang Schöne in the 1930s, based mainly on stylistic issues.
During the early 20th century the dating and chronology of works attributed to Christus underwent sharp debate and opinion changed a number of times. Max Friedlander proposed a number of dates and an ordering of works in the 1957 volume of his "Early Netherlandish painting", but many of his assumptions were discounted by Otto Pächt just a few years later.
In 1953 Erwin Panofsky disgregarded Schöne's dating as "more than twenty years too early". In his view, the lady's dress resembles Burgundian high fashion of the late 1460s to mid-1470s, and drew comparison the hennin worn by Maria Portinari in a c 1470 portrait by Hans Memling, and her gown to that worn by a lady in an illumination from the c 1470s Froissart of Louis of Gruuthuse of Bruges. Charles Sterling, placing the work as c 1465, points out that the hennin in the Berlin panel is of a different type to that in the New York painting. The New York headdress is far more extended, and seems to be of a style prevalent a few years after, and moreover lacks the draped and hanging veil.
Sterling notes that the panel has far more depth of field and more intricate detailing of light than any other work attributed to Christus. On this basis he believes that the work can be confidently assumed as executed later in the artist's career.
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