Display of 100 Renaissance Portraits Underscores Humans’ Enduring Desire to Be Remembered

An exhibition at the Rijksmuseum unites two early likenesses of African men in Europe, among other 15th- and 16th-century masterpieces

A person with long dark hair stands in a darkened gallery and looks at an illuminated white paper sheet, with a sketch of an African man's head and shoulders
"Remember Me," now on view at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, unites more than 100 European Renaissance portraits. Pictured here is Albrecht Dürer's 1508 chalk sketch of an unidentified African man. Albertine Dijkema / Rijksmuseum

Portraits, particularly the commissioned likenesses that were all the rage in Renaissance Europe, open windows into the most intimate desires, fears and hopes of both the sitter and the artist who painted them. How did this person wish to be seen? How did the artist want the individual to be remembered in life and after death?

These questions surely weighed on the minds of the more than 100 people depicted in the Rijksmuseum’s new exhibition, “Remember Me.” Curated by Matthias Ubl, Sara van Dijk and Friso Lammertse, the Amsterdam show unites dozens of Renaissance-era portraits of noblemen, middle-class families, children, soldiers, artists and more, rendered by the likes of German artists Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein, as well as  renowned Italian painters such as Sofonisba Anguissola and Titian.

Per a statement, “Remember Me” opens on October 1 and runs through January 16, 2022. Anyone with an internet connection can explore the exhibition’s accompanying online resources, which feature in-depth explorations of several key works.

A portrait of a young boy wearing elaborate robes and standing in front of a dark brown background
Titian, Portrait of Ranuccio Farnese, circa 1541–42 National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection

Portraiture blossomed in 16th-century Europe, spurred in part by a wealthy class of elites eager to demonstrate their influence through art. A featured portrait of an unknown man by Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina, for instance, communicates the wealthy sitter’s confidence through his posture and serious gaze, according to the museum.

The exhibition also unites two of the earliest individual portraits of African men in the history of European art. These works are being exhibited together for the first time, reports Daniel Boffey for the Guardian.

One of the images is a 1508 chalk portrait of an unidentified Black man by Dürer. The German artist probably made the work for himself and kept the portrait in his studio, where it was discovered after his death. (Though it’s not included in this show, Dürer also sketched a 1521 portrait of Katharina, a 20-year-old servant of African descent who worked in the home of a Portuguese businessman, writes historian Jeff Bowersox for Black Central Europe.)

Later, around 1525, Flemish artist Jan Jansz Mostaert painted Portrait of an African Man, a small oil likeness of a bearded Black man in military attire. The sitter elected to pose with his chin pointed upward, in a position of authority, while wearing fashionable, costly attire that suggests he held a role in court. The work stands out as the “earliest known painted portrait of an individual African man in late medieval and Renaissance Europe,” per the statement.

Mostaert rendered his subject’s facial characteristics “true to life” in specific detail, indicating that the sitter was a real person who commissioned the work rather than a figment of the artist’s imagination or a typified character study, as was sometimes the case with other early European depictions of African people, curator Ubl tells the Guardian.

Though the sitter’s identity remains unknown, Ubl says the golden badge on the man’s hat suggests he could have been Christophle le More, an archer and personal bodyguard to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The seal emphasizes the sitter’s Christian faith, telling viewers that that he completed a pilgrimage to Halle, a destination popular with members of the Brussels court.

A portrait of a Black man with a beard, in elegant costly dress and posed with his chin raised in a confident position
Jan Jansz Mostaert, Portrait of an African Man (Christophle le More?), circa 1525–30 Rijksmuseum

The inclusion of portraits of African people aligns with the Rijksmuseum’s desire to explore the legacies of colonialism through its collections, building on a recent exhibition about slavery in Dutch colonies, reports Mike Corder for the Associated Press (AP).

Whitewashing of Renaissance history has led many to assume that 15th- and 16th-century Europe was racially and ethnically homogenous. But this was far from the case, as people from African and European communities traded with one another and intermingled, particularly in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

“There was a presence in the Renaissance ... of Africans in Europe and we felt it very important to show these two works, to also show that presence,” Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits tells the AP. “I think that for a long time in the history of art, these works were invisible.”

A portrait of a pale young girl with faint eyebrows, a large forehead and wearing dark blue, white and black garments
Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Young Girl, 1470 Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

Other notable works on display include Petrus Christus’ famed Portrait of a Young Girl (circa 1470), which has only left its home at Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie one other time in the past six decades, reports J.S. Marcus for the Art Newspaper. Scholars know little about the girl’s identity, but Christus’ small oil-on-panel work has long drawn praise for the arresting gaze of its sitter and its layered background, which places the subject in a three-dimensional space, write art historians Steven Zucker and Beth Harris for Smarthistory.

Another intimate painting in the show is Dirck Jacobsz’s likeness of his father, fellow artist Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen. Painted in 1533, shortly after the latter’s death, the portrait is one of the earliest known images of a painter at an easel. Jacobsz depicts his late father at work on a portrait of his wife (and Jacobsz’s mother), Anna.

“[R]ather than a self-portrait,” the artist thus creates a composition inflected with grief and loss—“a portrait of a family: father, mother and son,” the Rijksmuseum notes.

A second early depiction of an artist at their easel is Anguissola’s Self-Portrait, which she painted around 1556 or 1557. Born to a relatively poor Italian noble family, Anguissola was one of the few women of her era who managed to break through the ranks in a mostly male field.

A portrait of a pale woman in dark simple dress, holding the viewer's gaze while she paints a religious scene
Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, circa 1556–57 Lancut Castle Museum

In the Rijksmuseum portrait, the painter depicts herself in a simple outfit. Religious paintings were generally considered a “higher” art form than portraits at the time, so Anguissola pointedly depicts herself at work on a scene of the Virgin Mary and Christ, according to the museum. The artist’s firm gaze holds the viewer’s eyes and leaves no doubt as to her intended message: Anguissola considers herself just as serious—and capable—as her male peers.

Remember Me” is on view at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam from October 1 to January 16, 2022.

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