Summary of Hans Memling
Hans Memling was one of the most prominent and productive Netherlandish artists of the later fifteenth century. Drawing from a variety of sources including Rogier van der Weyden, Robert Campin, and Jan van Eyck, Memling formed part of the second generation of Northern Renaissance painters (also known as the Flemish Primitives), who further developed the realistic representation of human figures, architectural constructions, and landscapes. Where van der Weyden often heightened the emotional impact of his paintings and simplified and stylized his sitters’ features, Memling’s work tends to be more placid and serene, and his depiction of figures more naturalistically detailed, if still flattering. As one nineteenth century writer poetically commented, “imagine…a privileged spot, a sort of angelical retreat…where simplicity, gentleness, and supernatural mildness grow like lilies — and you will have an idea of the unique soul of Memling, and the miracle he works in his pictures.”
Memling was one of the most prolific portraitists of the time; about one third of his output was independent portraits or diptychs, and additional likenesses appear as part of larger works. One of his most characteristic contributions was the use of a landscape background either viewed out a window or entirely outdoors. He developed this format further than his contemporaries and used it more consistently, perhaps prompted, as Paula Nuttall suggests, by his many Italian patrons, who appreciated the clarity and detail of Flemish landscape painting. In addition to portraits, the rest of his production was quite varied, ranging from devotional diptychs and standard altarpieces to extensive narrative paintings, a huge, multi-panel altar, and a carved and painted shrine.
- Memling worked in a highly detailed, illusionistic style, and he was particularly skilled at creating coherent, three-dimensional visual spaces that linked together separate components of his paintings and served as realistic settings for his figures, as well as helping the viewer engage more fully with the image.
- Memling’s work emphasized balanced, harmonious compositions and restrained, graceful figure types, a style that appealed to a broad range of patrons in Bruges in a period when the city was one of the major cultural and economic centers of Europe.
- Memling did not hold an official role in the painters’ guild of Bruges and did not receive commissions from the city or the Burgundian court, unlike most other successful artists of his time; instead, he seems to have relied on the wealthy and powerful merchants, bankers, and clergy who lived in or visited the city to support his career. These patrons also helped spread Memling’s innovative ideas throughout Europe.
Biography of Hans Memling
As with many artists of the period, little is known of Hans Memling’s life with much certainty. He was born near the German town of Seligenstadt, west of Frankfurt, mostly likely between 1435 and 1440, and his first documented appearance in the historical record was not until 1465, when he purchased citizenship in Bruges. The details of his life in the intervening years are largely unknown. One or both of his parents died in 1450 or 1451, possibly in a plague that struck the Middle Rhine and Cologne region in those years. Memling may have already begun his early artistic training by that time, and he seems to have continued it — if perhaps only briefly — in Cologne, a major trade and artistic center. This would account for certain parallels in Memling’s earliest works with the paintings of the most prominent artist in Cologne, Stefan Lochner, who had also just died in 1451. Even if he did not apprentice with Lochner himself, he seems to have developed familiarity with the artist’s paintings or perhaps with the drawings produced by his workshop.