MASTER of Flémalle
(b. ca. 1375, Valenciennes, d. 1444, Tournai)
Portrait of a Womanc. 1430
Wood, 41 x 28 cm
National Gallery, London
The companion piece of a panel representing a man, also in the National Gallery in London.
These pictures are among the earliest surviving examples of paired portraits. They belong to a group of unsigned and undocumented Netherlandish works attributed to a painter whom scholars have called the 'Mater of Flémalle', after three panels thought to have come from that locality. Robert Campin was an artist recorded in the archives of Tournai, where he had numerous pupils, held civic office, got into trouble for leading a dissolute life and enjoyed the protection of the daughter of the Count of Holland. Most people now believe that he and the Master of Flémalle are the same person. Under either name, the artist who portrayed these prosperous townspeople was a major painter.
It is especially interesting to see how Campin/Flémalle approached the task of depicting a married couple individually yet together. Although their glances do not meet, husband and wife turn towards each other. While the woman's face is smaller than the man's, and more brightly lit from the opposite direction to his, their features are aligned and the compositions appear subtly symmetrical. The symmetry is all the more pleasing and surprising for encompassing such obvious differences of gender, age, complexion, probable character, even colour and texture of head-dress. Nor does the pattern-making make the sitters look less lifelike. Because they take up more of the picture space than the figures of Van Eyck's bust-length portraits, and stand out more decisively from the background, they have a more assertive and potentially animated air.