Skin to Skin
Three exceptional pairs of portraits
From June 26, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna is showing the spectacular portrait of a fifty-six-year-old man by Frans Pourbus the Younger (Antwerp 1569-1622 Paris), a painting long believed lost that is on loan from a private collector. For three months it will be reunited with its companion piece, which is now in San Francisco and depicts the anonymous sitter’s fifty-four-year-old wife. Pourbus produced these two early works in 1591 while still in Antwerp, and he renders their features with remarkable verisimilitude. In the early eighteenth century, both portraits were probably acquired by Lothar Franz von Schönborn, Elector and Archbishop of Mainz and Prince-Bishop of Bamberg, and displayed in the gallery of Weissenstein Palace (Pommersfelden/Upper Franconia). But they parted ways once they and other paintings from Schönborn’s celebrated collection were sold in 1867: the portrait of the wife entered the museum at San Francisco in 1985, but nothing was known about the whereabouts of the portrait of the husband until 2014, when it reappeared and was acquired by its present owner.
The two works are among the best Flemish portraits from the late sixteenth century, and they were first reunited last year in an exhibition of Renaissance painting shown at Bruges. In Vienna we focus on the meticulous rendering of the anonymous couple’s features, and they will be joined by two additional pairs of equally veristic portraits from our holdings. In 1529 or shortly afterwards, Barthel Beham (Nuremberg? 1502 – 1540 Bologna) painted the portraits of an anonymous couple, and the striking depiction of the husband’s features is breathtakingly vivid and life-like. Almost two centuries later, Balthasar Denner (Hamburg-Altona 1685 – 1749 Rostock) focuses on the incredibly faithful rendering of aged skin in his paintings of the heads of an old couple; his Old Woman is perhaps the best and most famous hyper-realistic head of an old man or woman for which the now almost forgotten artist was celebrated throughout Europe during his lifetime. Of particular interest is the confrontation of this rarely displayed painting and Purbous’ portrait of an anonymous sitter, whose wrinkled skin seems like a precursor of Denner’s veracious “pore paintings.”
By juxtaposing these paired likenesses the exhibition offers an overview of highly-realistic painting from Early German portraits to the verism of late-sixteenth-century Flemish portraiture to the works of the fine-painters popular throughout Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century, represented here by Denner’s character heads. The two German pairings also reflect differences in the influence of Netherlandish art. Beham’s manner is clearly informed by the material realism of Early Netherlandish painting, but his male portrait also bears witness to his familiarity with developments in contemporary portraiture in the Low Countries. However, Denner’s heads of old men and women belong to the Dutch tradition of “tronies”, i.e. heads showing exaggerated facial expressions or representing stock characters; among the most influential were the fastidious examples produced by Rembrandt and his circle around 1625/30.