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Hans Memling Photo

Hans Memling - Biography and Legacy

Early Netherlandish Painter

Born: c. 1435-40 - Seligenstadt, Germany
Died: August 11, 1494 - Bruges, Belgium
Movements and Styles:
Northern Renaissance

Biography of Hans Memling

Early Life and Training

Memling’s <i>Last Judgment</i> (1467–71; Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk) bears numerous parallels with Rogier van der Weyden’s <i>Beaune Altarpiece</i> (1443–51; Musée de l’Hôtel Dieu, Beaune).

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.

As Barbara Lane suggests, Memling’s stay in Cologne may have been part of a period of several years’ travel, or wanderjahre, that he undertook, which might have also taken him to Louvain. Memling’s next destination was probably Brussels, where he likely served as an apprentice or journeyman in Rogier van der Weyden’s workshop, possibly starting as early as 1459 or 1460 or as late as the period of Van der Weyden’s death in 1464. Study of the underdrawings of works such as Madonna and Child Enthroned (c. 1465–70; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City) suggests that Memling used techniques he learned in Van der Weyden’s studio. Moreover, the numerous parallels in composition and figure types between works by Van der Weyden and several early paintings by Memling, notably the Last Judgment Triptych (1467–71; Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk) and the Adoration of the Magi Triptych (1470–72; Prado Museum, Madrid) along with several others, further support the idea, although Lane notes that Memling might well have based his compositions on the drawings and patterns that were widely circulated from the Brussels artist’s workshop. One much-debated work, the Annunciation (c. 1465–70; Metropolitan Museum, New York), may have been commissioned from Van der Weyden but painted by Memling after the older artist’s death.

Memling continued to draw inspiration from Van der Weyden’s work over the course of his career, as in his use of the devotional portrait diptych format. Some of these used plain backgrounds, as most of Van der Weyden’s did, while others featured detailed landscapes, perhaps derived in part from Van der Weyden’s Triptych of Jean Braque (c. 1451; Musée du Louvre). But while Memling was clearly deeply influenced by Van der Weyden, he synthesized these elements with ideas from many other artists, including Lochner and other Cologne artists, Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Dirck Bouts.

In January 1465, just seven months after Rogier van der Weyden’s death, Memling relocated to Bruges, where he purchased citizenship and went on to establish a large workshop. Bruges was a thriving international trade center at the time, and Petrus Christus its leading artist, although the work and reputation of Van Eyck, who had died there twenty-four years earlier, was still prominent.

Mature Period

A third of Memling’s artistic output was comprised of portraiture, such as <i>Portrait of a Young Man Praying</i> (1485–90, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid).

One of Memling’s earliest known paintings, the Madonna and Child Enthroned (c. 1465–70; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City) dates to just after his arrival in Bruges, and only two years later he received two major commissions, the monumental Last Judgment (1467–71; Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk), commissioned by Florentine banker Angelo Tani, and the Triptych of Jan Crabbe (c. 1467–70; Musei Civici, Vicenza, Morgan Library, New York, and Groenige Museum, Bruges), painted for the abbot of Ter Duinen Abbey, located west of Bruges. This suggests not only that Memling was already an accomplished artist by the time he reached Bruges, but also that he likely hired assistants to help complete these works, although their names are not documented. Thanks in part to these high-profile commissions, Memling also began to receive requests for portraits from wealthy Flemish and foreign patrons, including Tommaso Portinari, who had taken over from Angelo Tani as the Bruges manager of the Medici bank, and commissioned a portrait triptych of himself and his wife Maria Baroncelli (1470; portraits in the Metropolitan Museum, New York; center panel is lost).

Portraiture came to dominate Memling’s output in the 1470s and he became the most successful Netherlandish portraitist of his time. His numerous commissions came from Bruges burghers, Italian bankers, merchants, and diplomats, and later, wealthy German, Spanish, and English patrons.

The 1470s also saw his marriage to Anna de Valkenaere, with whom he had three children. Memling continued to produce both major altarpieces and more modestly scaled works, among them several for Saint John’s Hospital in Bruges (which now houses the Hans Memling Museum). This includes the Altarpiece of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist (1479; Saint John’s Hospital, Memling Museum, Bruges), painted for the high altar of the hospital church. Although he seems never to have received official commissions from the city of Bruges or the Burgundian court, his individual patrons provided sufficient support, and by 1480 he was among the city’s wealthiest citizens.

Late Period and Death

Memling is buried in Sint-Gilliskerk (Saint Giles Church) in Bruges

Bruges’s political and economic situation shifted considerably in the 1480s, precipitated initially by the death of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in the Battle of Nancy in 1477, which led to the near collapse of the Burgundian empire. In the territorial disputes that followed, Bruges suffered an economic crisis and began to lose its status as an international commercial center. As a result, Memling’s financial situation appears to have declined somewhat, but he maintained his position as a successful artist. He was able to hire two apprentices, in 1480 and 1483 or 1484, and must have had additional assistants in his workshop, which produced a large number of works — ultimately some seventy-five to ninety paintings are attributed to Memling, one of the largest bodies of work among his contemporaries.

In addition to producing further significant portraits in this period, like the two devotional images Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove (1487; Saint John’s Hospital, Memling Museum, Bruges) and the Triptych of Benedetto Portinari (1487; Staatliche Museen, Berlin and Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), he also completed another important commission for Saint John’s Hospital, the painted sides of a large reliquary dedicated to Saint Ursula (c. 1489, still in situ). Memling died in Bruges in 1494, leaving several properties to his children, his wife having died in 1487. He was buried in the churchyard at Saint Giles, a typical site for an artist of his prosperous, if not wealthy, status.

The Legacy of Hans Memling

As the head of a presumably large and busy workshop, Memling likely directly influenced several younger artists; Barbara Lane proposed that his assistants may have included Martin Schongauer (c. 1430–1491), Michael Sittow (c. 1468–1525 or 1526), and possibly even Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). Thanks largely to his prominence in cosmopolitan Bruges, Memling’s religious paintings and dignified portraits were also widely appreciated across Europe, particularly by Italians. During his lifetime, the presence of a number of his works in Italian collections gave considerable inspiration to Italian artists, particularly in their use of landscapes. Some of Memling’s landscape details were quoted directly in paintings by Fra Bartolomeo and Filippino Lippi, among others, while the widespread vogue in late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Italy for Flemish-style landscapes, and for detailed, illusionistic portraits, derived in part from artists’ emulation of Memling’s style more broadly, as Nuttall has examined. Even Leonardo da Vinci may have known and been inspired by Memling’s work.

In the years immediately following his death he received little recognition from writers, but his reputation began to increase by the mid-sixteenth century. In 1540, one Flemish scholar claimed that he had been “the most skillful and most excellent painter of the whole Christian world” at the time of his death. He was also acknowledged by Giorgio Vasari in the 1550 first edition of his Lives of the Artists as the pupil of Van der Weyden, while Karel van Mander called him an “outstanding master” in his Schilder-Boeck (Book of Painters) of 1604. By the early twentieth century, he was considered one of the most important Flemish artists of his time.

Contemporary artists continue to refer to Memling’s work, as Kehinde Wiley did in a 2013 series of portraits based directly on those by Memling. Wiley was inspired not only by the Flemish artist’s illusionistic verisimilitude and naturalistic landscape backgrounds, but also by his reliance on primarily middle-class patrons rather than noblemen.

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees

"Hans Memling Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees
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First published on 09 Mar 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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