Portrait of a Lady

Oil on wood panel
Image size: 10 inches (25.5 cm)
Faux tortoiseshell frame


North England Estate


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Barthel Bruyn the Elder

The date of Bartholomaeus (or Barthel) Bruyn’s birth, 1493, can be deduced from a portrait medal by Friedrich Hagenauer which is dated 1539 and gives the artist’s age as 46. The exact place of his birth is unknown, but was almost certainly in the region of the Lower Rhine. Bruyn entered the workshop of Jan Joest and assisted in painting the high altar of the Nikolaikirche, Kalkar, executed between 1505 and 1508. Also in Joest’s atelier at this time was Joos van Cleve, who befriended the younger Bruyn and whose art had a decisive influence upon him. After possibly working with Joest in Haarlem and Werden, Bruyn arrived in Cologne in 1512 and for a year or two joined the workshop of the artist known as the Master of Saint Severin. Bartholomaeus Bruyn remained in Cologne for the rest of his life and was the city’s dominant painter in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Although none of Bruyn’s paintings is signed, his oeuvre has been constructed around two documented altarpieces and several paintings that are dated. The wings of the high altar of the Münster in Essen were commissioned in 1522 and completed in 1525; surviving are depictions of the nativity and adoration of the kings, with the crucifixion and the lamentation on the reverse. The second altar, dating between 1529 and 1534, was commissioned for the high altar of the church of Saint Victor in Xantan and represents scenes from the life of Saint Victor and Saint Helena.

Beginning around 1525/1528 Bruyn’s religious paintings become increasingly “Romanist” and were influenced by the Italianate style and ornamentation of neighboring Netherlandish artists Jan van Scorel and Maerten van Heemskerck. Bruyn was also an excellent portraitist who depicted many of Cologne’s patrician citizens.

Bruyn’s career as a citizen can be followed in some detail. In 1518 and 1521 he was selected for membership on a city council (Rat der Vierundvierzig), and late in life he served on the town council (Ratsherrn) in 1549 and 1553. Sometime between 1515 and 1520 he married a woman named Agnes, and their two sons, Arnt and Bartholomaeus the Younger, became artists. In 1533 Bruyn was able to purchase two houses near the church of Saint Alban. His wife died around 1550 and Bruyn died in 1555; his death was recorded in the parish church of Saint Alban on 22 April.

Hand, John Oliver, with the assistance of Sally E. Mansfield. German Paintings of the Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1993: 22.


Technical Examination

Microphotograph of the blue in the corner of the eye – has the characteristics of azurite (copper carbonate). Touches of azurite, invisible to the naked eye, but perceivable as the blue in the white of the outer eye were a common addition in oil paintings of the 16th century in Northern Europe.

The paint has been delicately applied with small brushes, as can be seen on the fine line at the edge of the white headdress. There is a slight sense of patterning visible overall, in both flesh and costume, and in detailed examination of the paint (see microphotographs below) which may suggest the laying of linen or other cloth over the panel, before the application of a ground layer. The practice of laying cloth over panel was long established for tempera painting and equally likely to have been the case with partially gilded works in oil.

The slight pink colouring of the face suggests that an organic red has retained its strength and not faded. This preservation of organic red can be seen in the crimson colour of the carnation and makes it likely that the painting has been kept away from strong light.

The hands seem to have little pink colour, and, considering the colour of the flesh, it may be assumed that this pallidity was intentional. The stalk of the carnation held by the woman appears to have retained its original colour, very probably because it is mixed with either lead white or lead-tin yellow on the lit side of the green, either of which additions would help to preserve the original green colour.

The way in which this green has darkened with age is typical of a copper green. Translucent copper acetate in a resin or oil medium was employed frequently by Norther artists in the 16th century.

Microphotograph of the right-hand head of the double headed bird, showing the background with copper green of the bird’s beak and tongue which has now darkened with time. It is the thinner application of the copper green, where it runs over the gold, which gives an idea of the original translucency and beauty of the copper green Verdigris applied over gold. The red lake, which is also laid over the gold, has retained much of its original colour and fine translucent glaze, in spite of a little patchiness and restoration in places, showing how powerfully the green and red lake glazes were made to work over gold.

The pigments and techniques observed on this work all concur with a product of a sixteenth- century workshop. The use of red and green glazes on the gold and the fine brushwork may help to make comparisons with the works of Barthel Bruyn.

Bruyn appears not to have signed any portraits, and none can be linked to him through documentary sources. Nevertheless, a large body of independent portraits has been established for him through comparison with donor portraits in securely documented retables, such as the high altarpiece that Bruyn completed for Xanten Cathedral in 1534. The large irises, prominent chins, fleshy noses and lips, and high-contrast modelling characteristic of the portraits are evident in this portrait of Margaret.

Moreover, our portrait compares well in format, style, composition, costume, and attributes with several contemporary portrait pairs that are accepted as the work of Bruyn. The deft and efficient execution also points to Bruyn; it is especially convincing in the modeling and costume details of the portrait.