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Hunting for a 15th-century man

Author Haohao Lu is the IMA's Allen Whitehill Clowes Curatorial Fellow of European Painting and Sculpture before 1800.

Portraiture, either painting or photograph, is a paradoxical reminder of both the presence and the absence of a person. When looking at early modern portraiture in particular, we are often struck by a person’s presence intimately unfolding before us and the hollow of identity that has vanished over distance and time. The look of a familiar stranger is disquietingly uneasy. The impulse to identify a portrait is always accompanied by the yearning to overcome that uneasiness. We wish to know more about the person portrayed, even though such wish is not always gratified.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

With an early Netherlandish portrait in the Clowes Collection (fig.1), however, there is good news.

In 1983, Patricia Bennett, a graduate student from Indiana University Bloomington, quoted this painting in her MA thesis on the workshop practice of the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. Enclosed in her thesis are also a couple of correspondences with Lorne Campbell, a renowned curator from the National Gallery, London. Surprisingly, Campbell mentions that he recalls three versions of this portrait. The second version recently appeared at a 2002 Christie’s sale. The third, only available from a photograph in the Max J. Friedländer archive at the Netherlandish Institute for Art History in The Hague, reveals to us a tantalizing clue to identifying the portrait: a coat of arms which, as research demonstrates, belonged to the Bruges-based Van Themseke family.

An 1851 registry of noble families in Bruges by François van Dycke gives us a matching description of the family crest: “Cette famille porta: d’or, à trois têtes et cols de cheval de sable bridées d’argent. Cimier: une tête et col de cheval de l’écu entre un vol d’or. [This family carries: in gold, three horse heads and necks. Their crest:  one horse head and neck flanked by golden wings.]” An 18th-century registry of epitaphs and coat-of-arms from churches in Bruges—the so-called “Handschrift De Hooghe” — also includes matching images. (An interactive reproduction of the manuscript is available at the Bruges Historical Inheritance website.)

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

The earliest record of the noble family dates to the mid-13th century. Its notable members include a Jan, a knight who fought for Lord of Gruuthuse in 1392. A blazon page from a 15th-century manuscript depicting the troop of Gruuthuse attests a long-term alliance. (See if you can spot the Van Themseke family coat-of-arms in the page digitized by the National Library of France.)

Given the unusual survival of three versions of his portrait, our man of interest might be one of the well-to-do members of the family. On a separate note, an X-ray of the IMA portrait (fig. 2) shows losses of original paint at the top left corner. It is probable that the lost area was, if anything, a coat-of-arms of the Van Themseke family.

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