This recent Washington exhibition, jointly organized with the Art Museum of Estonia and its curator Greta Koppel, offers a fitting moment to pay tribute to John Hand, its long-time curator (since 1973) of early Northern Renaissance paintings at the National Gallery and a stalwart presence in both HNA and CODART. Hand has authored important catalogues of the Gallery’s permanent collection of both Netherlandish (1986; with Martha Wolff) and German pictures (1993) as well as the foundational monograph on Joos van Cleve (2004). He also co-organized landmark exhibitions of drawings in The Age of Bruegel (1986; also with Martha Wolff) as well as of diptychs, Prayers and Portraits (2006). As his swan song, Hand now has provided the first monographic exhibition of an elusive painter from the Hanseatic port of Reval (modern Tallinn), who served crowned rulers in Spain (as “Master Michel,” where he collaborated with another mobile painter, Juan de Flandes) and Denmark by way of Bruges and a presumed training with Hans Memling.
Michel Sittow (1468/69-1525) exemplifies the increasing mobility of artists during the early modern period within a pan-European (if not quite global yet) network, and Hand’s essay contribution situates him in precisely that context “from van Eyck to Rubens” (pp. 9-17). Koppel, appropriately, focuses on this pioneering Estonian painter as a “riddle” (1-7), whose oeuvre was brilliantly re-assembled by Max J. Friedländer and consolidated by Jãzeps Trizna (1976) and Matthias Weniger (2011). A historical essay, by Anu Mänd (27-35) focuses on late-medieval society in Reval. Weniger also contributed a characteristically scrupulous essay (27-37) that discusses the artist’s documented career and his oscillation between the Hanseatic port and the princely courts.
Washington holds two crucial images by Sittow (previously catalogued by Wolff): Assumption of the Virgin (no. 3) from the retablo of Isabella of Castile; and Diego de Guevara (?), a knight of the Spanish order of Calatrava (no. 13), still convincingly paired with a Madonna and Child (Berlin; no. 12) as a devotional diptych (Prayers and Portraits, 2006, no. 34). The Washington Assumption was complemented by an Ascension of Christ (no. 4; private collection, on loan to the National Gallery, London, but possibly a copy itself, according to Weniger) as well as the Temptation of Christ by Juan de Flandes (no. 5) from the same polyptych. Indeed, one might have wished for more Juan de Flandes in this exhibition, to test Weniger’s recent insights and to examine the dialogue between the two painters at Isabella’s court, though Weniger also illustrates a detail from the Saint John Altarpiece in Miraflores, documented as the work of Juan de Flandes (1496-99; its details only further reveal the confusing overlap and potential collaboration of these two overlapping, Flemish-trained, court painters).
Those core works were supplemented with major loans from Europe, mostly small portraits, but the Washington installation also included, surprisingly, a pair of large exterior panels, four standing saints, from a Bruges Passion altarpiece by the circle of Isenbrant, exported to Reval and there subsequently overpainted by Sittow (and workshop; nos. 21-22; recently restored in Talinn). Weniger’s essay even adds important new attributions to Sittow: the altarpiece in the Luna Chapel of Toledo Cathedral (1488-89), which, however, to this reader, seems far more harshly modeled and closer to Bermejo or another Hispano-Flemish painter, influenced by David; plus a convincing, late Reval work, retable wings, painted on both sides and sent to Bollnäs in Sweden, a work far more convincing as Sittow in both facial types and modelling.
Comparison to works by Hans Memling reinforce the claim that the young Sittow aligned himself with that Bruges master, and a Madonna and Child (Budapest, no. 1) virtually replicates a Memling prototype, while already showing a distinctive handling of shadows and facial types; it offers the lone early work prior to the 1492 court appointment in Spain. For portraits, too, Memling’s portrait of a Man with an Arrow (Washington; no. 7) suggests a foundation for the Sittow bust-length, three-quarter types, such as King Christian II of Denmark (Copenhagen; no. 11), a rare work securely datable, made around 1514 (the Guevara portrait, far better preserved, is dated ca. 1515/18, due to the awarding of the order to that individual in 1517, though the sitter identification remains uncertain).
But dating remains uncertain for most of the images in the exhibition, all of them unsigned; most of them are clustered around 1515, an undocumented travel interval following a return to Reval and guild membership in 1506, but these dates lack much justification, and Weniger concedes (p. 35) that Sittow did not show much career development over time.
Obviously many works in various sizes have been lost, including a Virgin and Sleeping Child from the prized works amassed by Margaret of Austria, whom Sittow served in 1516. Others, including documented copies of other devotional paintings, such as the Night Nativity (Upton House; no. 19, in the heritage of Hugo and David) remain to be identified. The portrait-like panel of Catherine of Aragon as Mary Magdalene (Detroit; no. 10) dovetails nicely with the Berlin Madonna, but less so with the Woman (Vienna; no. 18). Indeed, the range of handling in the exhibited portraits (especially Man with a Rosary, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, no. 16; closer to Massys; entry by Till-Holger Borchert) should generate renewed inspection by future scholars.
One particularly interesting image, dated around 1500, but withdrawn from Sittow’s hand in the catalogue entry by Weniger, is a small Coronation of the Virgin (Louvre, Paris; no. 6). While it clearly did not stem from the Isabella retablo due to its larger size (and original frame), it still closely resembles those same small panels and especially Sittow more than Juan, in both facial types and modelling. Yet Weniger here assigns it instead to an anonymous Netherlandish artist, while conceding that “details of the painting, especially in the faces and hair of Christ and God the Father, may indeed recall Sittow.”[i] Another slightly larger work, Christ Carrying the Cross (Pushkin Museum, Moscow; no. 20), seems correctly associated with Sittow, but it also generated an early copy.
These works and Weniger’s 2011 book remind us of how estimable both Sittow and Juan de Flandes paintings remain and how much their works converge at the critical juncture at the turn of the sixteenth century. We can indeed be grateful for this particular stimulating, if intimate, exhibition, and also for the other career-long contributions, large and small, by John Oliver Hand at the National Gallery in Washington.
University of Pennsylvania
[i] See also the entry by Jacques Foucart in La pintura gòtica hispano-flamenca. Bartolomé Bermejo i la seva época, exh. cat. (Barcelona, 2003), 438-443, no. 65.