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Anonymous master, Portrait of a Man, c. 1575, Art Institute of Chicago.

BRUSSELS.- With around 50 exceptional portraits from the Low Countries Faces Then gives us a good overview of different portrait genres and their role in the 16th century. It is the first major retrospective of this subject since 1953.


Marteen van Heemskerck, Portret van een oudere vrouw, c. 1530. Huile sur bois. Private Collection.

The 16th century was the golden age of the portrait. For centuries only saints and monarchs enjoyed the privilege of having their portrait painted. As of the late 15th century the share of portraiture grew exponentially in line with the economy and meant that the bourgeoisie were now able to have themselves immortalised increasingly often.


Ambrosius Benson, Portrait of a Man, c. 1530. Huile sur bois. Private Collection.

The works in the exhibition are of a sublime aesthetic quality and bear witness to an exceptional craftsmanship on the part of the artists. The Low Countries (Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Haarlem…) confirmed their reputation as one of the most important centres of portraiture. Artists such as Quentin Metsys, Joos van Cleve, Simon Bening, Ambrosius Benson, Joachim Beuckelaer and Catharina van Hemessen immortalised their contemporaries in astonishingly deft and incredibly detailed, almost photorealistic, paintings.


Michel Sittow, Portrait of a Gentleman, c. 1520. Huile sur bois. Private collection, courtesy of Het Noordbrabants Museum, ‘s-Hertogenbosch (The Netherlands).

The exhibition includes a few rare loans, such as the Portrait of an Old Woman (Museum of Fine Arts, Caen) by Frans Floris de Vriendt, the Portrait of Jan Van Scorel (Society of Antiquaries) by Anthonis Mor and the Portrait of a Man (Private collection) by Ambrosius Benson. The Self Portrait (Galleria degli Uffizi) by Anthonis Mor is, for example, one of the renowned works of art history.


Frans Floris de Vriendt, Portrait d’une vieille dame, 1558, huile sur bois. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen.

Portrait and identity
The artists from the Low Countries believed that the visible world was God’s creation and couldn’t be meddled with. As a result they strove for a depiction that was as true to life as possible. By adding small imperfections, such as wrinkles, scars or birthmarks, they tried to get a grip on what makes man an individual. This outlook was diametrically opposed to the beliefs of artists from the Italian Renaissance, such as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, who tried to idealise the subject of the portrait and sought the universal in mankind. The confrontation between both visions made room for experiment: artists looked for a synthesis between both visions and there was an unseen multiplicity of interpretations of the portrait during this period.


Marteen van Heemskerck, Portet van Reinerus Frisius Gemma, c. 1540-1545. Huile sur bois. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen.

Striving for the so-called ‘pure reproduction of reality’ was thus doomed to fail. Every work of art is nonetheless an artistic interpretation of reality by the artist. A portrait is in its very essence a construction of the identity of the person portrayed, through the choice of pose, attire, backdrop or attributes. This raises fascinating questions about the relationship between the portrayed and the artist, about how the person portrayed sees himself and about the way he wishes to present himself to the outside world.


Attribué à Adriaen Thomasz. Key, Portret van Johan II de Mauregnault, 2ème moitié du 16ème siècle. Huile sur bois. Museum Mayer van der Bergh, Antwerpen.

Art historian Till-Holger Borchert, born in Germany and specialised in 14th and 15th century art, has been head curator of the Groeninge Museum and the Arentshuis in Bruges since 2003 and writes authoritatively about the art of the Netherlands. Memling’s Portraits (Bruges / New York, Frick Collection / Madrid, Thyssen-Bornemisza) is one of the most important exhibitions that he has curated. His book Meesterwerk was praised by the Financial Times as one of the best art books of 2014.


Joos van Cleve, Selfportrait, c. 1519. Huile sur bois. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Koenraad Jonckheere lectures in Northern Baroque Art at the University of Ghent and published about the art market of the 17th and 18th century and about portraiture in 16th century Antwerp. He was curator of the exhibition about Michiel Coxcie in Museum M in Leuven.


Antonius Mor, Portrait of Jan van Scorel, 1559-1560. Huile sur bois. Society of Antiquaries of London.


Quinten Metsys, Portret van een Man met rozenkrans, c. 1515-1520. Huile sur bois Private Collection.


Simon Bening, Selfportrait aged 75, 1558. Aquarelle sur vélin marouflé sur carte. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.