Description & Technical information

This beautifully executed portrait of a young nobleman is a most interesting work with a fascinating history.

He wears a dark pearl grey doublet with white lace collar, a thin beard and moustache shadowing his pale luminous face. Efforts to identify the sitter, described as Spanish when sold at auction in 1925, have so far proved unsuccessful. He does, however, look strikingly similar to the knight executed by Antonis Mor, depicted in Friedländer (op. cit., Vol. XIII, pl. 187 (fg. 384)), now housed in the National Museum in Stockholm (Inv. no. 3233).

Antonis Mor (Utrecht c.1517-1520 – c.1576-1577 Antwerp) was a Netherlandish portrait painter known also as Antoon, Anthonius, Mor van Dashorst and Anthony More. His name is often given in Spanish form, Antonio Moro, a reference to his appointment in late 1553 as official painter to King Philip II and his time spent at the Spanish court. Born in Utrecht sometime between 1517 and 1520, Mor began his career as a pupil to Jan van Scorel, becoming his assistant in 1540. In 1547 he was received as a member of the Venerable Guild of St. Luke at Antwerp. Shortly afterwards he attracted the attention of Cardinal Granvella, Bishop of Arras, who became his steady patron as did the Duke of Alba, ruler of the Netherlands.

For twenty years Mor travelled among the Habsburg courts – Augsburg, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Rome. Following his appointment as official painter to King Philip II, Mor painted many portraits of members of the Spanish court and the Habsburg family. He spent the years from 1556 to 1559 in his homeland, probably alternating between Utrecht, Brussels and Antwerp. Towards the end of 1559 he accompanied Phillip II to Madrid, but after a few months returned to Utrecht. There is speculation as to the motives for his departure from the Spanish court, it having been suggested that Philip’s support of the Inquisition, his increasing ruthlessness in promoting Roman Catholicism and his quashing of humanist thought prompted Mor's departure on a pretext and promise to return. He never did. Philip II tried in vain to lure him back, but a reputedly jealous Duke of Alba kept Mor in Brussels in his service painting portraits of ‘all his concubines’. After 1570 demand for Mor’s work diminished, possibly as consequence of competition from painters such as Adriaen Thomasz. Key (c.1544 – c.1589), Frans Pourbus the Elder (1545 – 1581) and Frans Floris (1517 – 1570). The last portrait attributed to Mor is that of Hubertus Goltzius dated 1576. Mor focused during his last years on religious and mythological themes, but he never equalled the success he had had as a portrait painter. He died in Antwerp between 1576 – 1577.

Mor was a realist with Netherlandish attention to detail and polished technique. His influential new style wedded austerity and formality with penetrating insight into character. The expression depicted is always tense, taut – not relaxed – reflective of high intelligence and importance. His portraits do not have the look of having been painted for the family home. Rather, they appear as official memorials, with a grandeur better suited for ‘halls of fame’. As Friedländer observes, Mor’s ‘thoroughness, conscientiousness and objectivity’ is reflected in the attention he devoted to the ear. Since the ear contributes little to expression, most portraitists regarded it as an ‘insignificant appendage’ and either concealed it altogether or depicted it in ‘routine and slapdash fashion’. Not so Mor. He was devoted to every detail of the sitter and, as can be seen in our work, the ear is portrayed with great precision.

Mor’s heads are shown in half-view. Typically, as in our example, Mor painted his subjects with light falling on the side of the face towards the viewer, allowing cheek, forehead, temple and ear prominence. Complexion is seldom rosy or tanned – rather, as Friedländer describes it, usually ‘morbidly pale and iridescent like mother-of-pearl’.

Friedländer attributed our painting to Mor in the early 1920s. Records made available by the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (R.K.D.) indicate that he appears to have been provided with a photograph of our painting by the Julius Böhler Gallery, Munich in 1922 for his archive. On the reverse of the photograph can be seen the gallery stamp and a pencil note, confirmed by the R.K.D. as in the hand of Friedländer, recording his attribution to Antonis Mor (‘J.B. 1922 Mor’). The catalogue of the 1925 Fischer sale refers to the attribution by Friedländer and the work was sold as by ‘Antonis Moro’ for the then considerable sum of 43,000 CHF. A copy of the catalogue entry retained by the R.K.D. is annotated in pencil by art historian, collector, expert and connoisseur, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot.

Attribution of the work to Mor is not without difficulty. The work is signed and dated in the upper left: ‘GR / Anno 1556’. The monogram does not accord with Mor, a fact that would, of course, have been readily appreciated by Friedländer when making the attribution despite this. He may have reasoned that the reference to ‘GR’ was linked to the sitter. More plausibly perhaps, the portrait may be the work of an unidentified artist known to have been active in Nuremberg in the early 1550s (Nagler, op. cit.). Another portrait by that artist dated 1563 hangs in the townhall of the city.

Date:  1556
Period:  1400-1600, 16th Century
Origin:  Germany
Medium: Oil on canvas
Signature: Signed and dated upper left: GR / Anno 1556 

Dimensions: 63 x 52.4 cm (24³/₄ x 20⁵/₈ inches)
Provenance: With Julius Böhler Gallery, Munich, 1922
Coray-Stoop, Erlenbach-Zurich
By whose estate sold, Fisher, Luzern, 29 July 1925, lot 61 (43,000 CHF), purchased back on behalf of a family member
Her descendant, Stoop, Bloemendaal, thence by descent
Private collection, The Netherlands
Literature: M. J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting (A. W. Sijthoff, Leyden, 1975), Vol. XIII, pp. 63-69, 101-106, 115-116, pls. 170-196, esp. pls. 172 (figs. 346, 346a), 187 (fig. 384)
G. K. Nagler, Die Monogrammisten … (G. Hirths Verlag, Munich / Leipzig, 1863), Vol. III, p. 88
Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints