It took me nearly three and a half months to visit the Clare Eddy Thaw gallery of the Morgan Library and view Hans Memling: Portraiture, Piety, and a Reunited Altarpiece. There’s none of the obvious improvisation we direct painters enjoy—rather than oomph, we get delicacy and earnestness. With its hard edges and humble scale, Flemish art of the late fifteenth century may still look primitive as it emerges from Gothic stylization, but it claims that things are observable and knowable, and can be transcribed with astonishing clarity. Memling and his contemporaries mixed fact and the fantastic as a matter of course. They were regularly called upon to juxtapose elements taken from life with the conventions of imagined narrative, as often happened when artists were commissioned to place patrons in devotional pieces.
Born in Germany, Memling set up shop in Bruges by the mid-1460s. This allowed him to take advantage of the city’s international trade, an arrangement that worked both ways: he had access to patrons from all over Europe, and Florentine artists became familiar with his paintings. Raphael took note of his portrait designs, and his work was collected in France and England in the century following his death in 1494. Since the humanism of the Italian Renaissance didn’t reach the North until sometime around 1500, he had a greater influence on Italian art than vice versa.
At the center of the Morgan’s exhibition is the reunion of far-flung components of the Triptych of Jan Crabbe, an altarpiece Memling painted around 1470 and which was at some point disassembled so that its parts could be sold separately. The interior wing panels belong to the Morgan, while the main panel traveled from the Musei Civici at Vicenza and the exterior wings have been leant by the Groeningemuseum in Bruges. The center panel, the worse for wear, depicts Crabbe, a monastery abbot and well-known humanist, accompanying a group of saints at the Crucifixion. Its modern attribution to Memling dates from 1892, before which time it was thought to be by Jan van Eyck. Flanking it are the Morgan’s panels, the left showing Crabbe’s mother kneeling in prayer, the right with his half-brother doing likewise. The triptych is held together by an invented landscape that, while not offering a seamless transition between the three parts, is close enough to establish topographical coherence. Also unifying the panels is a consistent flat light that gives the figures the appearance of a bas-relief, and transforms their drapery into glazed parchment. Like the figures, the landscape is painted with an attention to detail that is at once naive and scrupulous, and is a lesson in pictorial relationship. Elaborate details of distant vegetation and architecture remain secondary to the main story, owing more to the color and mass of the figures’ clothing than their actions or expressions—the blue, red, and white robes account for the painting’s animation. Installed on the reverse are the outer wings, which illustrate the Annunciation with the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel. They are painted in demi-grisaille, with their white drapery intended to mimic sculpture, and the figures imbued with skin tone. This was an innovation credited largely to Memling, and indicates a “meta” conception, the artist playing with perceptions of illusionism in a way he could not elsewhere in the triptych.
A winningly subliminal aspect of Memling’s work is its even temper. He has been described, a bit uncharitably, as a sweeter artist than van der Weyden or van Eyck. Indeed, the sorrow of the Triptych of Jan Crabbe is muted, the pathos mitigated by understatement. The scholarship tends to be less impressed with the central panel of the Crabbe triptych than with the detail of Crabbe’s mother, a formidable woman whose depiction by Memling is routinely described as one of the finest portraits of an elderly subject in the Northern Renaissance. Perhaps her present-day renown is assisted by the dramatic facts of her life: Anna Willemzoon, an older widow of means, was brutally kidnapped in 1449 and forced to marry a squire, from whom she eventually escaped. She would have been about eighty years of age when she sat for the altarpiece, where it’s easy to see a tight-lipped resolve in her countenance.
“Realistic portraiture,” wrote Kenneth Clark, “the use of the accidents of each individual face to reveal inner life, was not a Florentine, nor even an Italian invention. It was invented in Flanders.” Memling was one of the earliest and most influential practitioners. The highlights here are the Frick Collection’s Portrait of a Man, seen against a distant landscape, the Morgan’s Portrait of a Man with a Pink (oh, the trouble that was had fitting hands into bust-length portraits, flattening the fingers against the picture plane), and an oval portrait from a private collection of a young man before a green wall, itself a fragment of an unknown larger painting. For me it’s the surprise gem of the show. These few small portraits alone are worth a visit, but it’s good to have the triptych as a centerpiece. Many times I’ve breezed through the Northern Renaissance rooms at the Met on my way to more exuberant pastures, those that celebrate the stuff of paint. The Morgan show offers a reason to stop and admire different virtues, from a time when piety and painting were synonymous, and portraiture was undertaken with the intensity of a newfound love.
Hans Memling: Portraiture, Piety, and a Reunited Altarpiece is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum through January 8, 2017.