WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)
Lady Wearing a Gauze Headdressc. 1445
Oil on oak panel, 47 x 32 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
Leaving aside the portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy (Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal), which have been preserved only in copies (by anonymous masters, now in Berlin and Malibu), the only extant panel portrait from the period before about 1450 is the Portrait of a Young Woman.
The young woman, with her expansive Flemish winged or horned coif of fine linen, through which the forehead remains visible, fills almost the entire panel. The 'nakedness' of the face and the softness of the features form an attractive contrast to the firm outlines of the stiffly folded linen and the dark background. The sitter's hands with beringed fingers are laid firmly on one another and rest on an invisible sill, support being provided visually by the frame.
While in his twenties the artist married Elisabeth Goffaerts, a native of Brussels, and it has been generally assumed that she is the subject of the Berlin portrait. Although there is no real foundation for it, this is not an unreasonable assumption; the open, warmhearted expression seems to preclude an official portrait and to suggest someone close to the artist.
It was undoubtedly this impression of intimacy created in this portrait - it occurs nowhere else in the painter's work - which seemed to call for some explanation. To portray the subject looking directly at the viewer was something quite new when this painting was executed; in the Netherlands this technique occurs for the first time in van Eyck's portraits. The resemblance to the portrait of a woman by the Master of Flémalle (now in the National Gallery, London) is worth noting. The artist has modelled his subject with sympathy and sensitivity, while avoiding contact with the observer.