Frans Pourbus the Younger
(1569 – 1622
An Unknown Man, aged 56
Painted 1591. Inscribed upper left: ‘AN DNI.1591.’ and upper right: ‘AETATIS SUAE. 56/f.pourbus fil.fr.fecit’
Oil on panel: 46 ¾ × 38 in. (119 × 96.5 cm.)
Elector Lothar Franz von Schönborn (1655 – 1729), Schloß Weissenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany;
thence by descent to Count Erwein Friedrich von Schönborn (1842 – 1903);
His sale, ‘Tableaux Anciens...du Château de Pommersfelden’, Paris, C. Pillet, 17-18 May 1867, lot 201;
where likely acquired by Alfred-Louis LeBoeuf de Montgermont (1841 – 1918);
Sale, Galerie Charpentier, Paris, 15 December 1959, lot 27;
with Heim Gallery, Paris, 1962;
Private Collection, Belgium from 1963 – 2014;
Sale, Hôtel des ventes d’Enghien, Paris, 23 November 2014, lot 331;
with The Weiss Gallery, until 2016.
J.R. Bys, Fürtrefflicher Gemähld-und Bilder-Schatz, So In denen Gallerie und Zimmern,
des Churfürstl. Pommersfeldischen neu-erbauten fürtrefflichen Privat-Schloß zu finden ist, Bamberg, 1719.
Reprinted by Bott, Weimar, 1997, p.29.
Joseph Heller, Die graflich Schönborn’sche Gemälde-Sammlang zu Schlos Weisenstein in Pommersfelden,
Bamberg, 1845, p.22.
F.E. Thein, Katalog der Graflich von Schoenborn’schen Bilder-Gallerie zu Pommersfelden, Würzburg, 1857, p.75.
Gustav Parthey, Deutscher Bildersaal: Verzeichniss in Deutschland der Maler vorhandenen Oelbilder
verstorbener go Schule, Berlin, 1864, vol. II, p.279, no.8.
Ludwig Burchard, Pourbus, Ulrich Thieme & Felix Becker, ‘Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler’, Leipzig, 1933, vol. XXVII.
Blaise Ducos, Frans Pourbus the Younger (1569 – 1622), Dijon, 2011, P.A.4 as ‘localisation inconnue’, pp.33-35 & pp.185-186, illus., & detail fig. 9.
The Weiss Gallery, From Merchants to Monarchs: Frans Pourbus the Younger, 2015, no.2.
Temporary loan: Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art, Luxembourg, 2016.
This is without doubt one of the finest portraits to be painted in the Netherlands at the end of the 16th century, and it is arguably the greatest head that Pourbus ever painted. Described in 1867 by the renowned art historian Thoré-Bürger as ‘a masterpiece of truth and expression’, it once formed part of one of the greatest art collections ever assembled, that of Elector Lothar Franz von Schonbörn (1655 – 1729), for his Schloß Weissenstein in Pommersfelden, Germany. There it hung in the great gallery with its pendant, the Portrait of a Lady aged 54, now in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in California. As with the portrait of Caterine van Damme, in these his earliest works, painted for the merchant and patrician class, Pourbus achieved what could be described as a degree of ‘hyper realism’ that he never again attained in his later court portraiture.
As Ducos astutely comments, our sitter is portrayed in a pose well established for princely portraits and depicted with a distinctive swagger not hitherto seen in portraits of the bourgeousie. As if to complement and emphasise the confidence of the patron as well as the artist himself, Pourbus decorates the painting with a bold and flourishing calligraphic signature and extraordinarily elaborately decorated inscriptions giving the sitter’s age as well as the date.
It is worth noting that the use of a signature by portrait painters was still relatively uncommon in the southern Netherlands in the late sixteenth century, and the extravagant way that Pourbus consciously identifies his own hand in this, his very first year as a member of the guild, must reflect his high level of confidence and pride in his work. It is also interesting that Pourbus did not feel the need to sign the companion portrait of his wife (fig. 1). Apart from our portrait, additional examples of his calligraphic signature are his bust-length Unknown Man of 1591, (Temple Newsam House, West Yorkshire), his portrait of Frans Francken the Elder, (Ufizzi, Florence), c.1591, and finally, a similarly foliate calligraphy can be seen on a letter depicted in his portrait of Nicolas de Hellincx, Councillor of the King, 1592, (Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp), and on his portrait of Pieter Ryckaert, 1592 (Groeningemuseum, Bruges).
The other fascinating aspect of the signatures from 1591 – 1593 are that he sometimes spelt his first name in full as Francisco. The added gravitas from using the full Latin form of his name would surely have appealed to the twenty-two year old artist. However, by the time he had left Antwerp to work at the courts in Brussels, Mantua and Paris, he thereafter only intermittently signed his work, and even then it was in a simpler roman script, for example as seen on the full-length portrait of Louis XIII (formerly with The Weiss Gallery, now at the Cleveland Museum of Art).
Unfortunately there is no other information available to help us identify our sitter or his profession. That he was a man of means can however be evidenced by the exquisite costume of his wife, whose detailed lace cuffs, ermine piping and silk petticoat reveal a woman determined to display her resources.
We find our portrait first recorded in an inventory made of the Elector Schönborn’s collection in 1719 by his artist-in-residence and gallery manager, Johann Rudolf Bys. By this time it included an impressive 480 works of art.1 The Elector was, after the Emperor, Germany’s most powerful man, holding offices as Elector and Archbishop of Mainz as well as Arch-chancellor and Prince-Bishop of Bamberg, and his collecting reflected his many and varied interests. Our portrait and its pendant were two of 146 paintings that were displayed in the Grand Galerie as part of a crowded hang that did not leave an inch to spare.
In 1867 the Elector’s descendant decided to hold a great sale in Paris of just part of the collection. The auction consisted of 280 paintings restricted to just the Dutch, Flemish and German schools, with a roll-call of many of the greatest artists from the 16th and 17th centuries, including three Rembrandts, six by Dou, seven by Wouwermans, a magnificent and monumental Rubens, as well as works by Dürer and Cranach. Since this was such a significant event, Théophile Thoré-Bürger (1807 – 1869), one of the leading art historians of the day and specialist in Dutch paintings – most notably Vermeer and Hals – was employed to write the preface and assist in the cataloguing. As we have already noted, he was particularly impressed by the Pourbus, describing the head as a ‘masterpiece’, and going on to further comment that it was a ‘superb’ portrait.
Given their distinguished provenance, and that many were masterpieces never seen by the public before, the paintings caused a sensation. There was fierce competition amongst the collectors and dealers to acquire them, with very high prices were achieved. Our portrait made 11,000 francs, which in today’s currency roughly equates to about $150,000, a princely sum at that time.
 The castle, a mini Versailles, remains privately owned by the Schönborn family and still houses one of the largest and most important collections of Baroque art in the world.
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