Louise Moelwyn-Hughes, master of Marlborough College, chooses a Petrus Christus image.
Portrait of a Young Girl, about 1470, 11½in by 9in, by Petrus Christus (active by 1444–75/6), Gemäldgalerie, Berlin, Germany
Louise Moelwyn-Hughes chooses Portrait of a Young Girl by Petrus Christus:
‘My choice of this painting is inextricably entangled in memory. I came across a copy of it, and fell under its spell, in 1974, when I was four years old in Belfast. We had returned there after some years in comparatively peaceful Dublin.
‘My parents bought it in one of the large, family-owned department stores (soon to be destroyed by terrorist bombs) and I remember us carrying it home on the bus. The young girl’s expression, wary yet defiant, petulant yet imperturbable, has haunted my imagination ever since.’
Louise Moelwyn-Hughes is master of Marlborough College
John McEwen on Portrait of a Young Girl by Petrus Christus
I once had the privilege of touring the major galleries of Berlin in the invigor-ating company of the sculptor Kenneth Armitage. This superb little portrait was the highpoint for him.
Petrus Christus was the major master in Bruges, then the Flemish commercial centre, between van Eyck’s death (1441) and Mem-ling’s arrival (1465). All that is known of his early life is gleaned from notification of his citizenship in 1444, which enabled him to practice as an artist in Bruges and revealed he was born in Baarle, 50 miles away.
After a spell of political rebellion, Bruges was booming under Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. Much of its trade was with Mediterranean countries; half of Christus’s 30 known pictures have an Italian or Spanish provenance. His fame is also attested by the admission of him and his wife, Gaudicine, to the honourable Bruges Confraternity of the Day Tree, whose members included all the Burgundian dukes and foremost families.
He was also a member of the similarly elite Confraternity of Our Lady of the Snow and his importance was further indicated by a 1463 commission, with another master artist, to supervise the construction of gigan-tic props for tableaux vivants in honour of a triumphal visit by Philip the Good.
Christus was the first Northern artist to demonstrate Italian linear perspective and his portrait of this unknown, but privileged girl breaks with tradition by placing her in a three-dimensional space with indicative wall-panelling, not a neutral background.
His fame endured in Italy, but diminished in the north after his death and has only been reinvigorated since the 19th century.
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