Rogier van der Weyden. Portrait of a Lady. c. 1455. National Gallery of Art, Washington
With the work of Rogier van der Weyden, early Netherlandish portraiture entered a new stage in its development. It is thought that Rogier became apprenticed at the workshop of Robert Campin at Tournai, graduating in 1432 as Maistre of the Painters’ Guild. He was appointed official painter to the city of Brussels in 1436. His work for the city included paintings on the theme of justice for the court room of the town hall. Besides his official work, he was commissioned to do a large number of portraits, usually by distinguished patrons at the Burgundian court (Duke Philip the Good, his son Duke Charles the Bold, Philippe de Croy, «Le Grand Batard de Bourgogne», Francesco d’Este, Nicolas Rolin etc.).
While Jan van Eyck reproduces the texture of his sitters’ skin in microscopic detail, seeking in a manner analogous to that of the nominalistic philosophy of his time to embrace the unique, contingent physicality of each individual portrayed, however crude or ugly this might make them seem, Rogier emphasises the social status of his sitters, especially through his portrayal of hands and face. Rank is primarily displayed — as it is with van Eyck — by means of opulent robes and heraldic or emblematic attributes. But Rogier’s stylised portraits — his attention, for example, to the sharply contrasting outlines of lips and nose, or his emphasis on the slenderness of limbs — idealise his sitters, lending them a greater sophistication. While van Eyck shows nature «in the raw», as it were, Rogier improves on physical reality, civilising and refining Nature and the human form with the help of his brush.
His half-length, three-quarters view Portrait of a Lady (Washington) serves to illustrate this. Her narrow face and elaborately pinned-up, transparent veil covering ears and brow stand out against a neutral, dark, two-dimensional background. Her hair, brushed tightly back from her high forehead and held in place by the black rim of her ornamental bonnet, pulls the corners of her eyes into light, upward slants. The veil was usually worn to hide the sensuality of the flesh; here, its fashionable transparency achieves quite the opposite effect. Unlike Rogier’s male sitters, the female subjects of his portraits lower their gaze as a sign of chastity and humility. One exception to this is his early portrait of a woman, painted in 1435 — today in Berlin — and thought to represent the artist’s wife.
As in most of Rogier’s head-and-shoulder portraits, particular attention is paid to the refined delicacy of the sitter’s hands. The fashionably extended sleeves of her elegant dress cover the backs of her hands, leaving only the slender frailty of her fingers in view, whose finely chiselled, interlocking layers bear a similarity to the exquisitely wrought golden buckle of the vermilion belt behind them.