de jonckheere old masters

Bartholomeus Bruyn

Portrait-diptych of a bourgeois couple, probably from Cologne, with the portrayal of a memento mori on the other side

Panel: 31 x 20,6 cm/back 38,8 x 30,8 cm


With his own particular delicateness, Bartholomeus Bruyn presents us with the portrait of a couple of notables. Each benefiting from unique precise, transparent and careful details, these two portraits are perfect examples of the artist’s work at its peak.

The faces stand out against a green background, thus allowing a highly subtle rendering of the models’ complexions, as well as the fabrics of their clothing. This same green with golden highlights can be seen in the portrait of a woman at the Oberlin Museum in Ohio. Our two portraits also share a three-quarter view. With the light coming from the right, the perfect shadows of the bodies give the illusion of space. The supple volume of the fabrics allows the painter to create a “tactile” portrait. The fur, linen and plush velvet mingle with the lustre of the pearls, the felt and the embroideries, playing with the light to emphasise the sumptuous variety of materials.

The portraits are filled with details that illustrate the social rank of the couple and reveal a hidden meaning. The hands of the young woman are decorated with several rings. Wearing a white cornet on her head, she says her rosary. Opposite, her husband, whose shoulders bear a heavy fur, is also holding a rosary. Faithful to his era, the relationship with the sacred and the symbolism of objects is clearly visible in all Bruyn’s works. He is careful to portray his models as devout, worthy representatives of Cologne’s high society, just as fulfilled in their spiritual lives as in their business. Filled with details associated with the fashion and tastes of the era, we can even suggest a plausible date for the painting. Comparing the frame of our diptych with the one in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and comparing the style of clothing worn by the couple with the portraits in the museums of Cologne and Berlin, we can date our diptych at around 1534.

Composed of two distinct panels, the diptych is enriched on the back with a memento mori depicting a skull and illustrating a maxim painted in gothic script. Written in old Flemish, the text says that “There is no defence against death.” Placed in a niche facing forwards, this skull perfectly resembles the one in the Hermitage Museum’s collection. Probably executed to accompany a similar diptych, this panel with practically identical dimensions is altogether typical of Bruyn’s works. Borrowed from Nordic humanist culture, he integrates the aspect of vanity with that of the portrait.

Provenance :
Baron of Mentzingen collection, Graf Andlau;
Wilfried Greif collection, New York;
Private collection.

Littérature :
Westhoff-Krummacher, Hildegard, Barthel Bruyn der Älter, als Bildnismaler, 1965, Deutschen Kunstverlag, cat. 84-85, reproduced p. 160;
Khun, Charles L., A catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections, Cambridge, 1936, pp.27 n°23, reproduction VII, dated 1535.