Currently on loan from the Frick Collection in New York, Hans Memling's "Portrait of a Man" is unique among paintings in the Norton Simon Museum, which does not otherwise boast a collection heavy in Flemish art. The Memling portrait is executed in oil on oak panels, and completed in the mid-1470s. It is relatively small in scale, at just over a foot high and nine inches wide.
The museum's description of the piece and the artist indicates that Memling was actually born in Seligenstadt, Germany and later moved to Bruges in 1465. Memling was trained as an artist in Brussels, alongside Rogier van der Weyden. Memling enjoyed a high degree of career success as a painter in Bruges. The "Portrait of a Man" in particular "testifies to the artist's popularity and renown during his lifetime," ("Memling's 'Portrait of a Man' on loan from The Frick Collection"). The portrait depicts a wealthy patron, who is most likely one of the "prosperous bankers or merchants who were eager to have their likenesses immortalized by Memling, who had already achieved wide fame and fruitful private commissions in his adopted city," ("Memling's 'Portrait of a Man' on loan from The Frick Collection"). In spite of his being immortalized, the subject of the portrait remains anonymous. The subject even appears humble, wearing nondescript black robes and has no apparent distinguishing features of his social class or political rank.
The portrait is composed with exquisite balance, as if the wooden canvas has been cut in half by a measuring tool and marked by a horizontal line designating the horizon. The bottom half of the composition is consumed almost entirely by black swathes: there are only a few patches of the wooden canvas that are not touched by black paint below the midpoint of the painting. The bulk of the black mass is owned by the stark black robes worn by the patron. As the lower part of the painting, the black mass works to convey a sense of grounding and stability. Like the color of mineral-rich soil, the color of the man's robes indicate that he is someone who is connected with the earth and the fruits of his labor. The dark color conveys a sense of gravity, earthiness, and weight that makes rational sense. It offers striking visual contrast to the upper portion of the painting, and hints at the Christian dualism between earth and heaven. Yet there is also balance and integration with the whole of the painting. Memling manages to make the man's hair a dark shade of brown, like his eyes. The color matching prevents the composition from falling apart and becoming disjointed or difficult to assess. If the black mass were at the top of the painting, it would seem completely unbalanced.
Moreover, the horizon line is integrated into the painting to create a cruciform composition. The cruciform composition may be a subtle reference to Christianity. It also ensures that the painting is divided formally into four equal and harmonious quadrants. The man's collar signals the vertical axis, as it has a small cleft that draws the eye either up or down. The horizon easily signals the horizontal axis. Memling renders the subject's nose and other facial features as nearly mathematical points upon the diagonal lines of the composition.
Thus, Memling manages to make a balanced composition that also symbolizes the worldview of medieval and Renaissance Europe. There is a sense of dualism that pervades the painting. Dualism is inherent in the top-bottom differential, of black for earth and blue sky representing heaven. The man appears poised between the world of religion and the world of mundane affairs.
Behind the subject in the distance is a town Church. The man does not look back at the Church, though. His gaze is ahead of him, possibly at his future as a merchant or scholar. The gaze is important to this portrait. Not only is the man not gazing at the viewer, but he is also not gazing at the symbol of Christian power in Europe: the Church. Instead, the man has a contemplative look that has nothing to do with his vanity at being painted or with his devotion to the Church.
When Memling painted the "Portrait of a Man," the humanitarian ideals of the Renaissance are just taking shape. These humanitarian ideals are represented by the placement of an ordinary man at the center the portrait rather than a religious scene. The subject is looking into the distance, representing the future outlook of European society away from the dark ages into the Renaissance. The man looks concerned mainly with earthly affairs, and his simple dress signals a burgeoning middle class. And yet, the man's black robes have an almost priestly character. Because the canvas is divided into halves symbolizing heaven and earth, and forms the shape of the cross, "Portrait of a Man" represents the transition from a purely religious worldview to one that focuses more on human potential.
The man also carries a sack on his shoulder, and the strap of that sack is also black. His hand clenching the strap signals its presence; otherwise it might go unnoticed by the viewer. The viewer can see that the cloth strap is of a shade slightly inkier, richer, and more saturated than the color of the man's robes. The difference in the shade of black is not noticeable at first glance, and highlights the sophisticated nuances of Memling's color palette. Where it not for the contrast between the robes and the strap of the bag, the viewer would not notice that the vestments are not pure black; they appear slightly brown compared with the strap of the bag. Incorporating the bag subtly into the painting, Memling suggests that his subject is about to embark on a journey. The journey may be purely physical or it could be symbolic and spiritual in nature too.
There are only three swatches of wooden canvas that are not black on the bottom half of the composition in "Portrait of a Man." One of those sections is taken up by the man's right hand, which is purposefully closed around the black sack strap that is slung over his shoulder. The only digits visible are the thumb and the first two fingers; the rest are outside the plane covered by the artist. The flesh tones in the man's hand are balanced by those of his neck, also visible below the horizon on the painting. The flesh tones on the bottom of the painting below the horizon adds necessarily balance and continuity between it and the upper half of the composition, which includes Memling's focal point: the portrait of the man.
Also included below the horizon on the wooden canvas is the landscape visible in the background. The landscape peers beyond each of the man's shoulders, and places the patron squarely in the pastoral low country. Olive green grasses and forest green clumps of trees add the only green elements to the painting. There is a small, barely discernible church steeple in the background too. The size of the church in comparison to the size of the man in the portrait is somewhat symbolic. Although the man in the portrait wears what could be a priestly vestment, it is not; the man is a merchant whose gaze is in the exact opposite direction from the church behind him. The steeple is on the horizon to the right of the midpoint of the painting.
Although Memling has not developed a mastery of chiaroscuro, he is adept at imbuing the portrait with appropriate shadowing that imparts a natural feel. For example, the fore-knuckles of the fist are in shadow, whereas the longer segments of the fingers are illuminated more brightly. The light source is consistent with the shadowing in the remainder of the painting. For example, the man's neck reveals the shadow of his chin. His left cheek has shadows, contrasting with the brightly illuminated cheeks and forehead. Memling lets the viewer know that the source of light is to viewer's left: the very direction the man faces. As the man faces this imaginary source of light, there is a symbolic sense of hopefulness and optimism pervading the portrait.
Above the horizon, the deep periwinkle blue sky takes up the whole background of the wooden canvas. The time of day appears to be at the twilight hour, given that the upper portion of the sky above the crown of the man's head is a deeper blue than the lower portion. The darker shades gradually fade into a luminescent horizon that glows almost a rosy pink. The gradated shades of sky impart the sense that time is moving, and not standing still as it would be if Memling cast his subject at high noon. This is a critical moment of sorts. The sense of time moving at a transitional point of day parallels the suggestion that the man, who carries a bag and looks away from the town, is about…