Portrait of a Gentleman, 1659
Portrait of a Gentleman, 1659
Oil on canvas; inscribed on reverse; 45 by 34 ½ in; 114 x 88 cm; held in a black and gold 19th century wood frame
Provenance: Collection of Christian Hammer (1818-1905), Stockholm, Sweden; lot 307 Hammer Collection, Cologne, Germany, 16-18th October, 1893
Matthaus Merian was the son of a Swiss engraver and draftsman of the same name, who went on to become a hugely successful artist and print-maker working across Europe during the middle of the 17th century; his widespread popularity founded primarily on his success as a portrait painter and having been one of Sir Anthony Van Dyke’s last assistants. The chief sources for his life are a short autobiography and a large collection of correspondence in the Nationalmuseets Archiv, Stockholm. From these papers Merian emerges as a likable, self-confident man of the world and a talented businessman.
The portrait presented here was completed by Merian in 1659 after he had settled in Frankfurt. It clearly displays the strong influence of Van Dyke whose assistant he became in the late 1630s. At the time of painting this picture Merian was well travelled and in great demand as a portraitist having developed a mature style which seems to combine the dignified, elegant manner of late Van Dyke with a certain inherent Flemish robustness; creating portraits of the nobility that were stylish, yet realistic in approach. No other painter of the age surpassed Van Dyck at portraying the shimmering whites of satin, the smooth blues of silk, or the rich crimsons of velvet and through this portrait we can see Merian was definitely endeavouring to emulate this. The proud, upright stance and slightly corpulent figure echoes such portraits by Van Dyke as Endymion Porter and Nicholas Lanier, both completed in 1628 and perhaps more particularly Porter’s depiction in the double portrait with Van Dyke c.1633 (Prado, Madrid).
In addition to his consummate technical skill, Merian’s ability to capture the facial features of his portrait subjects and to characterize their social status soon made him much sought after by some of Europe’s ruling classes and nobility. His liberal, eclectic style led the secretary of the French ambassador to dub him in 1663 ‘the best artist in Germany’.
This portrait probably depicts a successful burgher of Frankfurt whose wealth is emphasized by the richness of the white silk cloth and the fullness of his physical form. Painted with great rapidity, as seen by the spontaneity in the brushwork across the clothes; the face is more finely rendered, but with no lesser verve, creating an engaging countenance. Tall and aloof, yet relaxed and elegant Merian has created a portrait of distinct character that is first and foremost indebted to the master, Van Dyke. His style did vary, as did his technical approach, but this portrait demonstrates more distinctly than others his good fortune in assisting the most influential portrait painter in European art history.
Merian first learnt etching with his father and then in 1635 studied painting with Joachim von Sandrart. In 1637 he travelled with Sandrart to Amsterdam, where he ended his apprenticeship and continued to England, working under Sir Anthony van Dyck. After the latter’s death in 1641 he went via Paris (where he came under the influence of Simon Vouet) back to Frankfurt. From 1643-5 he travelled around Italy, first in Venice and then in Rome and Naples, where he studied the work of Jusepe de Ribera. From 1648-50 he was mainly in the service of the Swedish Field-Marshal Carl Gustav Wrangel (1613-76), achieving much success in painting portraits of him and his officers. After his father’s death in 1650 he took over the management of the Merian publishing house in Frankfurt at the same time travelling in Germany from court to court, painting many portraits, history pictures and church paintings such as the Tucher family altarpiece ‘Ecce Homo’ (1659; now Nuremberg, St. Sebald, Kirchenverwalt). His virtuosity in portrait-painting – he became a competitor of his teacher Sandrart – brought commissions from Emperor Leopold I, the Duke of Brunswick Luneburg, the Margrave of Baden-Baden and Baden-Durlach and also from Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg. These oil-paintings and sketches, sometimes hastily executed, are to be found in European museums (Basle, Kuntsmuseum and Historiches Museum) and collections such as the castles of Skokloster and Gripsholm in Sweden. The portrait of the Merian family (1641; Basle, Kuntsmuseum) with the artist, his parents and five brothers and sisters is probably his finest work. Also extant are numerous portrait sketches in black and white chalk on blue paper held in Swiss and German museums
Examples of Merian’s work can be found in many European museums and private collections and the Kress Collection in the U.S.A..
A note on Provenance: Christian H Hammer (1818-1905) was a court jeweler to Sweden’s royal family, a real estate agent, and a major collector. He was born in Christiania (Oslo) and was a journeyman goldsmith there in 1838. He came to Stockholm in 1849-50. For 25 years, he built up and catalogued two different collections, one of art history and applied art, containing some 100,000 pieces and the other comprising over 100,000 book volumes, autographs, and manuscripts. The cultural historical collections were displayed and organised in a private museum in Byströmska House, Hammer’s apartment in Stockholm and in Furusund where Hammer himself often guided visitors.