Memling’s Man with an Arrow (1478-80)

In an entry on Hans Memling's Portrait of Tommaso di Folco Portinari we have shown that the surface of his painting represents a mirror with one of the two praying hands painting its mirror-image in the painting. Here is another example of how portraits by Memling are not what they seem. I should note that while the faces of Memling's sitters often share "a family resemblance", as Lorne Campbell put it, we do not have a certain self-portrait with which to compare them for face fusion.1 Nevertheless, given the "family resemblance", it is more than likely that many once resembled the artist or, perhaps, an earlier poet or painter he admired.

Memling's Man with an Arrow has only two major details: the hand holding the arrow and a small fly recently discovered by conservators [though not visible in this older reproduction.] It stands as though on the now-missing frame between the man's thumb and his white shirt. What do they mean? Conventionalists argue that the arrow would have been an attribute of the sitter's identity while the fly, as always, is thought to represent the transience of life as an emblem of decay. It is difficult to believe that artists we admire would be so strikingly unimaginative.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Memling, Portrait of a Man with an Arrow (1478-80) Oil on panel. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

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Note, though, that less than half the arrow is shown and the sitter holds it, ever so gently, between his thumb and forefinger like an artist holds a brush or quill. As in the portrait of Portinari, the figure on the poetic level represents the artist himself. Here, though, he "paints" the bottom edge of the panel with his "arrow-brush." Forget about the real arrow descending far below the painting. That is not what you see so don't imagine it.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Memling's Portrait of a Man with an Arrow

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The other important detail, the fly, cannot just be an emblem of decay either because true artists think visually. Be imaginative yourself.  Think of the fly, then, as standing on the lower frame, the way it would have looked. What would it resemble? It would look like the fly was resting in front of a painting in our exterior space thereby emphasizing that the hand has indeed painted its own portrait behind and in a mirror, no doubt: the mirror of Memling's mind.

See other paintings in which arrows represent brushes by Michelangelo, Hans Baldung Grien, Raphael, Titian, Egon Schiele and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Other artists who imagine the whole surface of the painting as a mirror include Filippo Lippi, Caravaggio, Velazquez, Stubbs, Courbet and Manet.

Captions for image(s) above:

Memling, Portrait of a Man with an Arrow

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Notes:

1. Campbell, who has previously demonstrated through surviving documents that Renaissance sitters did expect an accurate likeness, has subsequently revealed that they did not get it from either Van Eyck or Memling. Both Northern artists, according to Campbell, distorted the faces of their sitters. Nevertheless, despite a "family resemblance" he and others have seen between some of Van Eyck's portraits and Memling's too, he continues to argue that the changes were simply to make the sitter look even more like himself or herself or to focus attention on the "most interesting parts of the face." See Campbell, Renaissance Portraits: European Portrait-Painting in the 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries (Yale University Press) 1990, pp. 159-74; Campbell, “ The Making of Early Netherlandish Painted Portraits” in The Image of the Individual: Portraits in the Renaissance, eds. Nicholas Mann and Luke Syson  (British Museum) 1998, pp. 105-12; Campbell in Memling (Frick Collection) 2005.

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