An unknown lady with a pomander

Attributed to: Pieter Jansz. Pourbus
1523 – 1584

An unknown lady with a pomander

Oil on panel: 40 x 30 inches, 101.6 x 76.2 cm


  • With Lane Fine Art, c. 1978 - 1982
  • Private collection, UK.

This striking portrait of a patrician lady, likely commissioned as a companion portrait to that of her husband (now lost), is archetypal of the work of Pieter Pourbus, comparing well with his portraits from the 1570s.[1] Her costume, with its high puffed sleeves is likewise typical of a fleeting fashion from that decade.

Set contrapposto and looking directly at the viewer, against a typically somber grey background, the sensitive modelling and subtle individualization of our portrait clearly reflects Pieter Pourbus’s skills and remarkable powers of observation. He has minutely rendered every detail, from the sitter’s gently raised eyebrow and astute expression, to the highlights on her pomander and twisted links of her golden chains, the antique cameos in her rings and and intricate blackwork embroidery in her gloves. Infrared examination of the portrait reveals some underdrawing to the ruff, a small amount to mark out her hands, and practically none at all in her face. It exemplifies the artist’s confidence and superlative ability to paint a likeness from life, ‘wet-in-wet’.

Unfortunately, two large-scale armorials in the upper left and right background have at some point been deliberately obliterated. As such, there are no clues to indicate our lady’s identity – though she appears mature, probably in her thirties. Her sumptuous black silk costume and embroidered gloves point to her particular wealth and status, as do her elaborately wrought gold pomander and heavy gold chains. These magnificent globular cases which contained pomander scents were traditionally hung from a neck-chain or girdle, and were perforated in a variety of openwork techniques, made of silver, or in this case, gold.[2] Notably, our lady holds hers, rather than wearing it, so it is being used here as a purely painterly device to denote her wealth and status. Likewise, her manifold bejeweled rings denote her particular privilege.

The composition is typical of the artist’s modus operandi in several ways: the subject is conventionally posed three-quarter length, against a monochrome background that not only focuses the viewer’s gaze on the human figure, but endows it with a convincing sense of relief. Also, one of her arms - in this instance her right - is strongly and characteristically foreshortened. It is interesting to compare this work with another much later work by Frans Pourbus the Younger, also currently with The Weiss Gallery. In that portrait of Caterine van Damme painted in 1591 by the youthful Frans, aged but twenty-one years old, we can see the clear debt that the young master owed to his late grandfather and tutor.

Pieter Pourbus was the most important painter to work in Bruges in the second half of the sixteenth century, and the founder of a famous dynasty of artists spanning three generations, which included his son Frans Pourbus the Elder (c.1545 – 1581) and his grandson Frans Pourbus the Younger (1569 – 1622). Frans the Younger in particular went on to become the most famous international court portraitist of his day, working notably under the patronage of the Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, Marie de Medici and Louis XIII.

For his part, Pieter was a polymath for not only was he a painter and draughtsman, but also a cartographer, a surveyor as well as a civil engineer. He was born in 1523 or 1524, possibly in Gouda in Southern Holland. According to the contemporary art historian Karel van Mander, with whom he was good friends, Pieter settled in Bruges early on and took an active part in civic life, recorded as a master in the Bruges Guild of St Luke in 1543. It is not clear with whom he trained, even if his early style is quite reminiscent of that of Jan van Scorel (1495 – 1562) and also with Adriaen Thomasz. Key (c. 1544 – c. 1599), with whose work his is often confused.

Pourbus’s first major commission was to design decorations for the Bruges magistrates, celebrating the triumphal entry into Bruges of Crown Prince Philip of Spain and his father Charles V. At first, the artist remained indebted to the aesthetics of the Bruges school of painting, which was notably known for its bright colours. The best example of this, and perhaps his masterpiece, is his Allegory of True Love (c. 1547; Wallace Collection). Gradually, however, his style evolved and became more sober and constrained - as in our painting – though his outstanding technique remained ever constant. In 1582 he purchased a house and set up a studio that caused van Mander’s admiration: ‘Never have I seen such an efficient painter’s shop as he had’.


[1] Alternatively, one could consider the possibility that it is a portrait of a widow, supported by the fact that the painting once sported two crests – presumably that of her husband and of her own family – rather than a single crest for her family, as might be expected if the portrait were a pendant to her husband’s, which would have borne the crest for his family.

[2] The name, pomander, came from French, pomme d’ambre. They often contained several partitions, each with a different perfume, such as ambergris (hence the name), musk or civet.

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