UNKNOWN MASTER, Flemish
(active in 1420s)

Portrait of a Princess

c. 1420
Wood, 53 x 38 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

In this outstanding example of late Gothic portraiture, the linear patterns, jeweled colours, and lavish ornamentation modeled in low relief served to accentuate the precisely observed profile. The subject is believed to be a Burgundian princess. The general concept of such international-style portraits is derived from antique Roman medals and coins.

The noble lady's profile is set off by a neutral, dark background. She wears a dark blue dress with a golden design and decorated with pearls, and a head-dress like a turban. Though her face is depicted in profile, her bust is shown in three-quarter view.

At first sight the picture affects us rather by its decorativeness than with the fascination of a portrait. The form of the head is reduced to a flat, decorative area and it is only the remarkable, undulating outline that characterizes the sitter, the face itself being a smooth, almost immaterial surface, which does not convey the creamy complexion of the young woman. Only the curving line of the ear was more emphatically represented by the painter. There is a sharp contrast between this face of intricate contours and smooth surface and the dress, plain in its outlines but rich in design and almost three-dimensional in its decoration, a garment with falling folds and a texture one can almost touch. (However one cannot but notice that the decoration of the dress was more important for the painter than the interpretation of its materiality. This is revealed by the fact that the pattern does not follow the movements of the folds but looks as if it were printed on the flat surface of the picture.) And yet, this drapery, with a wealth of details, allows the likeness to take the leading role because it is dark and does not contrast with the dark background, whereas the pale, almost luminous face does do so. The turban-like head-dress is painted in the same manner as the dress. The round brim turns forward like a reversed image of the line of the domed forehead.

Apart from her social status and characteristic profile we hardly know anything about the sitter; nor did the artist aim at revealing more than this. He wanted to record authentically the child of a rich family, an endeavour excellently realized by the characteristic, emblematic profile form framed by the magnificent apparel.

The attribution of the picture has been subject to a great many arguments. Some scholars consider it to have been painted by Pisanello, others deem it to be the work of a Franco-Flemish master active in the circle of the Limbourg brothers.