Portrait of a Young Girl (Christus, Berlin)
Portrait of a Young Girl is a small oil on oak panel painting by the Early Netherlandish painter Petrus Christus. Christus completed the work towards the end of his life, between 1465 and 1470. The painting is now housed in the Gemäldegalerie Berlin. The work is both a major stylistic advance in Christus' oeuvre and in that of Netherlandish portraiture. The subject no longer sits against a flat, neutral background is but placed in an airy, three-dimensional, realistic setting. She petulantly looks towards the viewer; her complex stare is reserved, but alert and intelligent.
The painting is widely regarded as one of the most exquisite Northern Renaissance portraits. Art historian Joel Upton described the lady as resembling "a polished pearl, almost opalescent, lying on a cushion of black velvet." The panel builds on the work of the first generation Northern Renaissance painters Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, the two pioneers of the Early Netherlandish school. Christus is generally seen as the most significant member of the next generation. The panel was highly influential in the decades after its completion. Its appeal in part lies in the intriguing stare, accentuated by the fact that her eyes are not quite aligned, while her eyebrows are slightly skewed.
Christus frames the girl in an almost architectural manner which is both rigid and balanced. She sits within a narrow horizontal triangular space, and the wall behind her is largely flat. The image is divided by the right angle joining an inverted triangle formed by her dress, and the horizontal lines of her neck, face and headdress. The rendering of the background departs somewhat from contemporary conventions in portraiture; Christus sets her against a thinly sketched dark brown wall which is defined both in terms of material (the lower half is a wooden dado), its shadows and distance from the girl. The wall sets her in a naturalistic interior, perhaps intended to represent a space within her home.
A soft light enters the pictorial space from the left, throwing shadows against the back wall, most noticeably those cast by the girl's hennin. The depth of space provided by the back wall gives room for the detailing of the light, which Sterling notes is indebted to van Eyck. The light throws a murky but curved shadow on the wall behind the girl and acts as a counterpoint to the contour of her cheek and hairline.
The girl has pale skin, almond and slightly oriental eyes and a petulant mouth. She reflects the Gothic ideal of elongated facial features, narrow shoulders, tightly pinned hair and a seemingly unnaturally long forehead, achieved with tightly pulled back hair shaved at the top. She is dressed in expensive clothing and jewellery and seems to be uncommonly elegant. She looks out of the canvas in an oblique but self-aware and penetrating manner that some art historians have described as unnerving. Joanna Woods-Marsden remarks that a sitter acknowledging her audience in this way was virtually unprecedented even in Italian portrait painting at that time. Her acknowledgment is accentuated 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.
This style of headdress seems a form of the truncated or bee-hive hennin, at the time fashionable at the Burgundian court. A very similar style, with no tail, is seen on the older of two girls in the donor panels of Presentation of Christ by the Master of the Prado Adoration of the Magi, a pupil of Rogier van der Weyden. The black band under the chin is rarely found 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 tail or cornette, sometimes worn wrapped under the chin in this way.
The influence of van Eyck can be seen in the delicate rendering of the textures and details of the dress, trimmings and adornments. The girl's almost white skin and strong bone structure is strongly van Eyckian, and recalls the male sitter in his Arnolfini Portrait. But in other ways Christus abandons the developments made by van Eyck and Robert Campin. He reduces the emphasis on volume of those artists, in favour of an elongation of form; the narrow, slight upper body and head are, according to the art historian Robert Suckale, "heightened by the V-shaped neckline of the ermine and the cylindrical hat." Further, while the first generation of Early Netherlandish painters benefited from the patronage of the newly emerging middle class, secularising portraiture, and removing it from the preserve of royalty, Christus deliberately renders the girl as aristocratic, haughty, sophisticated, and exquisitely dressed.
Identity of the sitter
Gustav Waagen, later Director of the Berlin Museums, interpreted lettering on the panels as suggesting "a niece of the famous Talbots" (eine Nichte des berühmten Talbots). His research led to a consensus that the sitter was a member of the leading English family, the Talbots, then headed by the Earl of Shrewsbury. In 1863 George Scharf suggested the panel was intended as the right-hand wing to a diptych with the 1446 Portrait of Edward Grimston (or "Grymston"; National Gallery, London), 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 background 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 established that Grymeston had not married into the Talbot family.
Joel Upton, in support of Waagen's analysis, suggested 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 of the National Gallery, London, suggests that given the signature was in Latin, the identification may also have been, and that Waagen might have misinterpreted the word "nepos", which can also mean "grandchild". From this Upton concludes that she was a daughter of John Talbot, 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury, either Anne or Margaret. Their parents married between 1444 and 1445, suggesting that the sitter was under 20 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, Duke of Burgundy.
The painting was probably first recorded in a 1492 inventory of the Medici family, described as a small panel bust of a French lady, coloured in oil, the work of Pietro Cresci from Bruges. However, it seems from other identified works in the collection that the scribe was uninformed and described any piece of northern art in the collection as "French". It seems to have been highly valued, with an unusually high price of 40 florins, and was prominently displayed within the collection. The record does not address the matter of the girl's identity beyond her nationality, indicating that the painting was regarded as of aesthetic rather than historical interest.
In the 20th century Erwin Panofsky was instrumental in furthering Christus' 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, high cheek bones, slanted eyes and sulky expressions.
The portrait entered the Prussian royal collection with the purchase in 1821 of the Edward Solly collection, from which the then-recently formed Gemäldegalerie, Berlin was allowed to take its pick. It was positively identified in 1825 as an original by Christus when 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, Waagen also identified Christus' so-called Saint Eligius panel, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (and seen as just a portrait of a goldsmith), marking the painter's rediscovery after centuries of obscurity.
Before this identification, a number of his paintings had been attributed to Jan van Eyck, but Waagen established Christus as a separate master, and pupil or follower of van Eyck. Christus signed six of his works, sometimes with the text "PETR XPI ME FECIT" (Petr Xpi made me), hence the confusion with the older painter who often signed his work with similar phraseology, variants of "JOHES DE EYCK ME FECIT". Over the next century sketches of Christus' biography were constructed, as art historians, notably Panofsky, slowly disentangled his works from those of van Eyck.
The painting was dated c 1446 by Wolfgang Schöne in the 1930s, mainly by matching the style and fashion of her clothing to contemporary trends. In the early 20th century works then attributed to Christus underwent examination and were challenged, and the opinions of leading scholars changed a number of times. Max Friedländer 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 established that Schöne's dating was at least twenty years too early. In his view, the girl's dress resembles Burgundian high fashion of the late 1460s to mid-1470s. He compared 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 around the 1470s Froissart of Louis of Gruuthuse of Bruges. Charles Sterling, placing the work as c 1465, remarks 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 intricate detailing of light than any other work attributed to Christus. On this basis he believes that the work can be confidently assumed to have been executed later in the artist's career.
- Upton, 30
- Kemperdick, 24
- Suckale, 84
- Van der Elst, 69
- Frère, Jean Claude. Early Flemish painting. Terrail, 2007
- Harbison, 126–127
- Kemperdick, 23
- Stapleford, 19
- Brown, 70
- Woods-Marsden notes just two earlier examples, both of men: Castagno's Portrait of a Man and Mantegna's Portrait of Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan. In Brown, 70
- Ridderbos et al., 314
- See Upton, 22, for exant variants of this signature
- Ainsworth, 166
- Russell, 102
- Upton, 29
- Ainsworth, 168
- Upton, 44
- Hand et al., 54
- Stapleford, 114
- Nash, 101
- Ainsworth, 25
- Ainsworth, 30
- Ainsworth, 117
- Upton, 22
- Sterling, 18–19
- Sterling, 18
- Panofsky, 313
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