A Man aged 38 by Lucas van Leyden

A Man aged 38 by Lucas van Leyden

My Daily Art Display for today returns to portraiture.   The oil on canvas painting is entitled A Man aged 38 and is by the Dutch artist Lucas van Leyden.  Along with the likes of Gossaert and Massys he was looked upon as one of the most significant Netherlandish artist of the early sixteenth century.  According to the eminent Dutch painter and biographer of Netherlandish artists, Karel van Mander, Leyden was born around 1494 in Leiden, one of five children.  His father was the painter Huig Jacobsz.   Leyden is looked upon as a child art prodigy as at the age of nine he was already making engravings and three years later had sold his first painting, Legend of St Hubert.  He received artistic training from his father and also from Cornelis Engelbrechtsz, a leading artist of the day.  By 1508 he was, according to the biographer van Mander, “a master of repute as a copperplate engraver”.

Lucas Van Leyden portrait in silverpoint by Durer

In 1521, whilst in Antwerp, van Leyden met Albrecht Dürer, an artist who had influenced his work.   In Dürer’s diary kept during his travels in the Low Countries, he records that whilst at Antwerp he met Lucas, who asked him to dinner, and that he had accepted the invitation. He valued the art of Lucas at its true figure, and exchanged the Dutchman’s prints for eight florins’ worth of his own.  Dürer even drew a silverpoint portrait of the young Dutch artist (above).  Lucas returned to his home town of Leiden.  In 1526 he married Lysbeth van Bosschuysen, a young lady from one of the most influential and wealthiest families of the town.  In 1527 Lucas journeyed around the Netherlands, hosting dinners to the painters of the guilds of Middleburg, Ghent, Malines and Antwerp.    During his tour of the Netherlands he had Jan Mabuse (Gossaert) as a companion.   Van Leyden liked to imitate him in his style as well as in his love of rich costume.

After returning home, van Leyden took ill and remained unwell until his death in 1533, aged 39 years of age.  Van Leyden was convinced that an envious colleague, who was jealous of his success, had given him poison.   He left a wife, daughter Gretchen who days before his death had given birth to van Leyden’ first grandchild.

The majority of van Leyden’s work was engravings and etchings of which he completed almost one hundred and seventy between 1508 and 1530.  These circulated throughout Europe and because of this the young artist’s reputation grew steadily. However today I am not featuring one of his many engravings or etchings but his painted portrait of a young man which he completed around 1521 at around the time he met up with Albrecht Dürer.

 We see in front of us the bust-length figure of a clean-shaven man wearing a black coat and dark green gown clutching a piece of paper in his right hand.  Inscribed on the paper are the numbers “3” and “8” and it is believed that this refers to the age of this unknown sitter.  He looks lost in his own thoughts.  He is a picture of concentration.  The background is of a plain mid-green colour and is only interrupted by the dark shadow cast by the man’s head and his black cap.  This type of shadowing effect was often seen in sixteenth century portraiture.    Although the man is looking to our left we see his face in full.    Look carefully at his eyes.  I am fascinated by how we can see the reflection of a double-light window in his eyes as he stares out at the light.  This full light shining on the sitter allows us to see clearly every detail of the tone and colour his face.  One strange facial characteristic of the sitter is his extremely low-set eyebrows.   Art historians have discussed the face and lean towards the view that maybe van Leyden has by enlarging the eyes and the angles of the face made the sitter’s portrait more flattering.  Obviously the sitter has commissioned the portrait from the artist and is expecting both a truthful and flattering image, which of course is often at odds with one another!  Still, I am sure the sitter was pleased with the result.

 Of the painting the English writer and art historian Sir Claude Phillips wrote:

 “…neither Dürer nor Holbein has painted anything more expressive than this still youthful dreamer of dreams, who but seems to look out at the spectator – in reality absorbed in the sad contemplation of his own soul….”