Hans Memling Portrait of a Young Man


Gallerie dell' Accademia di Venezia


200 x 260 mm



historical period


Exhibit Artwork

Artwork Details

The painting represents a half-length portrait in the foreground of a Flemish man dressed in Italian style, portrayed slightly from the side. He has frizzy brown hair covered with a dark hat. The young man, whose face is characterized by a sharp nose and voluminous lips, is wearing a black robe, which probably used to be brown and from which you can see a hint of a white-collar shirt. The painting represents the final path of the revolution in the genre of portrait that Hans Memling made in the mid-15th century when he began to detach himself from older Flemish painters such as Jan Van Eyck, Rogier Van der Weyden and Petrus Christus, who depicted their characters with limited attention to detail and overall rendering. In fact, Memling tried to portray something more than just the objective aspect of the figure. In this way he showed a deep understanding of Italian painting – following the examples of Ghirlandaio – that was more interested in searching no only the physical aspect through painting, but also the clothing and the ornaments of the subject and especially the feelings that were expressed in their face and eyes, that are seen as the mirror of the soul. For this reason, the painting of the Gallerie dell’Accademia was attributed to an Italian artist, Antonello da Messina, for a long time. Only in 1903, after the first intuition of Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle already in 1871, the work was attributed to Hans Memling, when it was compared to his other portraits such as the Man in a Fur Coat of the Uffizi Galleries. In fact, in the second half of the 15th century there were some exchanges and contacts between Flemish culture and Italian painting, in particular in Tuscany and through the commissions of the Florentine bankers who stayed in Flanders and then sent the works to their hometown. The famous Portinari Triptych by Hugo van der Goes (Florence, Uffizi Galleries, 1477-78) for example, contributed enormously to bringing Flemish painting and culture to Florence. The small painting that dates to the mature period of the artist, between 1470 and 1480, represents a young man with a tranquil gaze, absorbed in his thoughts, his hand resting on a fence or a parapet which cannot be seen well, in a manner that was then also used by Giorgione and the artists of his circle in the early 16th century. His pensive and contemplative attitude is perfectly in line with the charming, quiet and luminous landscape behind him. This element also represents a novelty compared to the Flemish portraits of the previous decades, where usually the subject emerges from a dark background without any reference to an environmental context. The painting is characterized by well-defined colors and clear light that illuminates the young face, which is described in detail as can be seen in the fine hair of the beard, the lips and the various tones of the skin that change depending on the lightning. The painting came to the Gallerie dell’Accademia in 1856, when the museum bought it from the Manfrin collection.

Artist Details

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The artist probably owes his last name to the town of Mömlingen and his whereabouts in the first twenty years of his life are almost unknown. There are no documents that would tell us something about his early training. What can be said for sure is that just before 1460 he was in Mainz and Cologne, where he saw the triptych of the Last Judgement by Stephan Lochner, which greatly influenced his early works. Around 1460 he probably stayed in Brussels in Rogie Wan der Weiden’s workshop, at least until the latter’s death in 1464. Around this date Memling may have moved to Flanders, more particularly to Bruges. His first known works are from the 1470s when Hans was already an independent painter and not working under a master in a workshop, and he was an established artist who was commissioned by the merchants with several works and portraits, which he made with extreme care on details in the faces and fabrics, as well as with a certain psychological investigation of his subjects. In this period Memling also painted several triptychs, such as the Women (Madonna with Child, Saints and Donors, ca. 1470) and the one in Gdansk with the Last Judgement (ca. 1473) and the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (around 1479) imposing himself on the cultural scene of the city, which was monopolized then by Petrus Christus. Memling, who was admired for his elegant painting, characterized by thin and graceful figures dressed in rich fabrics, represented in every detail, dampened the pure tones without any chiaroscuro and thus attenuate the crystallized effect of Flemish painting, often linked to bright colors and clear light. Memling was an artist, who was faithful to his style which he kept rather unchanged over the years. He continued to work especially for the wealthy bourgeoisie of Brouges, who were successful traders and bankers. Towards the end of the 15th century the city, and more generally the Flanders, began to lose their power and the territory started to weaken in a dramatic manner. These were the last years of Hans Memling, who died in 1494 leaving his workshop to two painters of name Memling, perhaps his sons, whose identity was never completely unveiled.

Collection Details

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The Accademia of Venice was founded in 1750 and the opening of the Gallerie dell’Accademia was linked to it with primarily educational purpose: in 1803 a decree established the need to adjoin a gallery next to the school that was used by the students who studied painting and sculpting.

In 1817 the gallery was opened also to the public. The gallery is located in the area of Dorsoduro, down by the Accademia bridge, in a complex including the church of Santa Maria della Carità, the Canonici Lateranensi convent and the Scuola Grande of Santa Maria della Carità, all situated in a single floor, divided into twenty-fours and covering 5537 square meters.

The first section of the collection includes the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple and the Pietà by Titian (1538) and the Triptych of the Madonna della Carità by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna (1480). The collection also includes essays by the students of the academy and a collection of plaster casts (hence the plural name, gallerie) which were put on display in the exhibition with success in 1817.

The collection was enriched with the paintings brought from defeated France and with the masterpieces that were left to the museum by great collectors. However, the paintings were always linked to the Venetian culture and this feature was tried to overcome for the whole 20th century. Among these works was the legacy of Felicita Reiner (in 1833, but only formalized in 1850), which included masterpieces such as Piero della Francesca’s St. Jerome, Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child and Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene. The legacy of Girolamo Contarini (1838) included 180 works, among them Madonna of the Small Trees and the Four Allegories by Bellini, and six paintings by Pietro Longhi.

The emperor Franz Joseph grew the collection with Nicolò di Pietro’s Madonna and Mantegna’s St. George, Memling’s Portrait of a Young Man and Giorgione’s Old Woman. The gallery was radically reorganized in 1895 by the director Giulio Cantalamessa. He excluded all the 19th century artists and for the first time the exhibition was organized chronologically. He coordinated the cycles of the School of St. Ursula by Vittore Carpaccio and the School of St. John the Evangelist by Cima da Conegliano, previously divided in various locations. Under the direction of Gino Fogolari (1905) the museum acquired other fundamental masterpieces, such as the Tempest by Giorgione and the Crucifixion by Luca Giordano and the Feast at the House of Simon by Bernardo Strozzi.

In the post-war period the museum performed various changes, for example Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, which was supposed to be placed in a specially designed room, was returned to the Frari church in Venice instead. The 19th century works that were already excluded from the exhibition were sent to the deposit at the museum of Modern Art in Ca’ Pesaro and the foreign art in the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti in Ca’ d’Oro. In the 1940s’ Vittorio Moschini and Carlo Scarpa wanted to perform a modern reorganization of the museum, including the 19th century salons, but which resulted quite impractical in the end. In these years Francesco Guardi’s Fire in the Oil Depot of San Marcuola and Montagna’s St. Peter and Donor became part of the collection.

In 1987 director Sciré decided to increase the exhibition space opening the gallery on the fourth floor with the graphic collection and a new deposit was opened on the top floor of the Palladio building. In the same year the collection was enriched with two cherubs and two allegorical figures representing Justice and Patience, taken from Giorgio Vasari’s ceiling in a room of Palazzo Corner on the Grand Canal. Between 2001-2003 the gallery was renovated expanding the exhibition areas and adding modern lightning in the rooms.