The gilt Gothic inscription on this masterpiece of Renaissance portraiture identifies the sitter as Jacob Obrecht (1457/58-1505), a renowned choirmaster and one of the greatest composers of his age. On the original attached frame is inscribed both the date of the painting, 1496, and the sitter's age, 38. Born in Ghent, Obrecht led a peripatetic career, taking posts in Bergen op Zoom, Cambrai, Bruges, and Antwerp. Such was his international standing, he was invited to the court of Ferrara by Duke Ercole I d'Este. He died from the plague, eulogized as "a most learned musician, second in the art to no one, in respect to either voice or cleverness of invention." The painting, possibly the left-hand side of a diptych, would have faced a complementary panel of a religious subject. Preserved in exceptional condition, it is remarkable for the virtuosity of details such as the folds of Obrecht's lace-trimmed surplice and the soft gray fur of the almuce (the badge of office of a canon, including the choral clergy) draped over his arm.
The identity of the artist has long remained a mystery. Recent study of the portrait in the Museum's department of conservation has led to a new attribution: the painting is the earliest dated work by the Netherlandish master Quinten Metsys. Just thirty years old when the painting was completed, Metsys went on to become one of the most successful painters residing in the city of Antwerp. The technical refinement of the paint layers, from the finely hatched brushstrokes in the hands to the smoothly blended flesh tones, suggests that the artist used a mixed medium of egg tempera and oil. Metsys was skilled at the representation of telling details of his sitters' appearance: the gentle textures of skin on Obrecht's fingers or on his neck; his carefully delineated fingernails or the shape of his mouth; the discreet stubble of his beard or his clear, bright eye.
Adult: Portrait of Jacob Obrecht, Conservation
The painting, which is on a single oak panel, is in exceptional condition. Examination with infrared light show that the artist established the composition with underdrawing and used hatched strokes to define the shadows of the sleeve. Slight pentimenti appear in the positions of the proper right shoulder and hand. The underdrawing, which is characteristic of works from this period, has so far not permitted identification with a particular artist. The technical refinement of the paint layers, from the finely hatched brush strokes in the hands to the smoothly blended flesh tones, suggests that the artist probably utilized a mixed technique of egg tempera and oil medium. Analysis of the binder has confirmed the presence of both oil and protein in the medium. Not only has the painting never been removed form its original engaged frame, but traces of the blue background paint on the frame indicated that the panel was painted while already framed. In the recent restoration, the layer of gilding on the frame, which had been applied in the nineteenth century, was removed to reveal the original marbled paint surface typical of early Netherlandish portraits. The wooden strips that been added around the edges of the frame were also removed, which revealed where two hinges had originally been located on the right edge of the panel. Finding evidence of the hinges suggested that the panel formed the left wing of a diptych or triptych. The reverse of the panel is executed in grisaille and shows a draped female standing and holding a book. The identity of this figure is still a matter of speculation. It is inferior to the portrait in both quality and condition, and is probably not by the same artist.
Grati Baroni de Piqueras [b. 1925], Paris;
(sale, Sotheby’s, New York, 15 January 1993, no. 139);
purchased through (Acquavella Galleries, Inc., New York) by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1993.