About two years ago, while perusing the plates in a Parisian sale catalogue from the 1920’s of Old Master Drawings, I came across the drawing reproduced inside the back cover of Catalogue 165 (until I have an image reproduced here, anyone interested can email me and I will send a photocopy of the plate from the sale catalogue).

The drawing is described this way:

MEMLING (Ecole de Hans)

99 - Portrait d’homme vu de trois quarts a droite. Pierre noire et sanguine rehausse d’aquarelle. Haut 190 ; larg. 135.

Some of the scholars of Netherlandish art on my mailing list will probably recognize this drawing as a later copy after the Portrait of Jacob Obrecht, dated 1496, attributed to Hans Memling by Dirk De Vos, which appeared a few years ago and which is now in the Kimball Art Museum. It is certainly not a 15th century drawing and certainly not contemporary with the portrait. [The portrait, previously unknown, was published by De Vos in 1989 and then discussed in Hans Memling. The Complete Work., Antwerp, 1994, as catalogue number 93, pgs. 336-337.]

I have not read the lengthy article of 1989, but by 1994 De Vos became fully convinced that Memling was the painter of the Kimball portrait. Unfortunately, when an art historian becomes convinced that an attribution of his or hers is correct, he or she will spare no words in an attempt to explain away the anomalies that contradict and undermine it. The useful French expression qui s’excuse, s’accuse, applies. Furthermore, please look at page 387 in the 1994 book, on which are reproduced three of Memling’s portrait heads and Obrecht’s: morphologically, Obrecht’s doesn’t match the other three; the flesh is very pasty, and the head is not lit in a typical Memling manner, either. There is almost always a bone structure indicated or implied inside a Memling portrait head. In this portrait of Obrecht, no such structure is indicated or suggested. In my opinion, the attribution to Memling is incorrect. [I think the portrait may very well have been painted by an excellent French artist, perhaps by the same artist responsible for Metropolitan Museum of Art Inv. 37.155, Portrait of a Monk, which they date ca. 1480 but which may have been painted later. The interested reader should refer to: Charles Sterling, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Catalogue of French Paintings XV-XVII Centuries, New York, 1955, pgs. 9-11 with references.]

But to get back to the drawing, the drawn head is about 5 per cent smaller than the painted image, so it could not have been done from a tracing. However, it corresponds nearly completely, in all details – except that the drawing is intellectually simplified and "prettified." When I first came across the reproduction, my initial impression was that this was a Northern Italian drawing of the 16th century – which would suggest that the portrait (or a version of it?) was in Italy in the 16th century. That would not be impossible – there were numerous Flemish portraits in Italian collections as early as the fifteenth century.

Today, I am no longer so certain about the age of this drawing. It’s "prettiness" now reminds me of English drawn portrait heads of the first third of the 19th century, and the fact that the drawing is done in red and black chalk "enhanced with watercolor" seems to reinforce this possibility. So, perhaps the painting was in England in the 19th century.

I have not been able to find out anything at all about the gentleman who owned the collection of drawings in which this "Memling" appeared. A web search of his name turned up nothing at all. The drawing was part of a sizable collection of 250 works, titled: Catalogue des Dessins et Aquarelles des Ecoles Francaises & Etrangeres du XVe au XIXe Siecle…. Interesting drawings of all schools were represented, some very good, along with some duds; perhaps this was a dealer’s collection, but I have never come across his name. (And a great many auction and dealers’ catalogues have passed through my hands during the past 15 years!) I suppose that the drawings from this sale can be traced, through an annotated catalogue. I haven’t tried to do this.

To be perfectly honest, when I first saw this reproduction and thought that the drawing was Italian, I felt that my "discovery" had some value, if it could suggest that the painting was at one time in Italy; but now that I am not so sure about the nationality, I have calmed down a bit, and I reproduce it here as an interesting footnote to any discussion of the Kimball portrait.

What is very interesting and perplexing to me, is that the drawing was sold as "School of Hans Memling." The owner of the collection was certainly a connoisseur; but the intellectual emptiness of this portrait drawing would not have reminded me of Memling’s work. Perhaps the drawing has landed in an accessible collection and someone knows where it is these days.



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