The Flemish painter Hans Memling (circa 1435-1494) is primarily remembered today for his meticulously executed paintings of religious subjects in the style of Rogier van der Weyden, with whom he is thought to have studied. Memling is also known to have excelled as a portrait painter, yet that aspect of his art has received less critical attention. This is one reason why the exhibition of Memling’s Portraits at the Frick Collection is a considerable event. Another is the almost superhuman perfection of Memling’s portrait style.
Portraiture is not an art commonly associated with pictorial perfection. In much modern portraiture, aggressive attempts to convey the inner life of the portrait’s subject have resulted in excessive psychological interpretation, if not indeed outright caricature. Some element of psychoanalysis is called upon to be discovered, as it were, in the painter’s response to the sitter’s observable demeanor. In traditional portraiture, an obligation to flatter the subject often results in another kind of distortion. Truly objective depiction is such a rarity in portrait painting that it’s bound to strike us as a radical practice when we encounter it.
Memling appears to have been a radical of this sort. He took no interest in the inner life of his subjects, and he remained indifferent, too, to whatever changes in pictorial style occurred in the course of his career. When he found what he needed in the Early Netherlandish conventions of his time, he never looked elsewhere for inspiration.
This may account for what some viewers find to be a coldness, a preternatural detachment from human interest, in Memling’s portraits. In his paintings of religious subjects, the austerity of his style is somewhat relieved by luminous color and the attention to minute detail, but in the portraits, these and similar visual interests are often consigned to the background. The principal interest remains sharply focused on the obdurate features of the portrait’s subject, who is presented to the viewer less as a personality to be responded to than as an object to be studied.
This paradox in Memling’s pictorial art is worth pondering: There’s more human interest to be found in his religious paintings than in his portraits. There’s a tenderness, a pathos, even at times a peculiar charm in the religious paintings that’s entirely absent from the portraits.
Religious faith was, of course, the central drama of Flemish life, and it was inevitable that it would command a deeper response from Flemish painters than any secular subject. In the background of the portraits, however, we’re given vivid glimpses of his treatment of still another subject—landscape—to which he devoted detailed attention. As Paula Nuttall recalls for us in the catalog of this exhibition, Memling painted “many portraits with naturalistic settings,” and their influence proved to be “trend-setting and distinctive in the Netherlands as well as in Italy …. One of his favoured devices, that of placing the sitter in an interior with a window giving onto a landscape vista … seems to have been especially popular in Florence, where artists explored a number of variants of the interior-exterior setting for portraits.” Yet, as Ms. Nuttall mordantly observes, “For the most part, Italian painters were content to imitate Memling rather than to attempt to surpass him.”
For a larger, definitive account of Memling’s achievement and its influence, we would need to see more than just the extraordinary portraits—but we’re not likely to see such an exhibition in the near future. Meanwhile, Memling’s Portraits remains on view at the Frick Collection through Dec. 31.