Memling’s Portrait of a Young Man (c.1475-80)

How and why the independent portrait returned to Europe after a thousand-year absence is the subject of much speculation. What is most strange in these early examples is that while patrons always desired a good likeness, they rarely got it. Marilyn Ainsworth has shown how Hans Memling was so unconcerned with exact likeness that he used stock patterns for his sitters' heads, fixing their size and proportions. To that he added details, some unique, though one particular nose, clearly broken, appears in several portraits.

In this example Paula Nuttall has noted that the shape of the sitter's hands mimics the contour of his head......

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Memling, Portrait of a Young Man (c.1475-80) Oil on oak panel. Lehman Coll., Metropolitan Museum, New York

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........the curls also repeated in the curve of his thumb (compare details). No explanation is provided because as a mere portrait, this form-echo is meaningless. Only the concept every painter paints himself can make sense of it: that the craft of painting (hands) and its conception (mind) are united, one not possible without the other. Many Northern artists at the time including Dürer did not get the respect they deserved because painting was considered the product of manual labor alone unlike literature which proceeded solely from the mind. True artists, though, have always been highly intelligent, fully aware that mind and hand in art must work as one.

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Top and Bottom: Two details of Memling's Portrait of a Young Man

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Nuttall also observed that Perugino's self-portrait in the Uffizi is based on Memling's anonymous Young Man. This means that Perugino understood his source as an allegorical self-portrait of the Northern master regardless of the sitter's identity. He then painted his own self-portrait in Memling's "likeness" with landscape in the background, a novel feature introduced by Memling. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Memling, Portrait of a Young Man
R: Perugino, Self-portrait

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Great masters do not choose their sources for design purposes alone because all significant design has meaning. Perugino's identification with Memling through the links just mentioned would have been recognized by any subsequent master familiar with each man's work. Their location, too, in a bare loggia high above the landscape seems to locate their figures in an allegorical depiction of their own mind with the two vertical strips of landscape in Memling's portrait as a symbol for the duality of his eyes. It is a guess, so far, but an educated one that may find supporting evidence in the future.

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Memling, Portrait of a Young Man
R: Perugino, Self-portrait

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Notes:

1. Ainsworth, p. 100

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