WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)
Portrait of a Ladyc. 1455
Oil on oak panel, 37 x 27 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Rogier van der Weyden's independent portraits are very like each other in concept and in structure. He lays out his portrait panels as clear, geometrically structured compositions within the basic pattern designed by Jan van Eyck, showing the sitter for the portrait three-quarter face, either head and shoulders or half length, in front of a uniform, usually dark background. This is very noticeable in the late Portrait of a Lady. This famous portrait is believed to be of Marie de Valengin, illegitimate daughter of Philip the Good of Burgundy.
The upright figure is enclosed in a diamond-shaped structure of diagonals, probably even clearer originally, when the slender body would have stood out in rather more contrast to the deep, greenish blue background, which has now darkened.
On the left, the wing of her head-dress forms a large diagonal line, continued in the patterned head-dress itself; on the right a rather shorter but broader wing of the head-dress balances the line, going the other way. Rogier has raised the woman's ear to allow a continuation of the line formed by the inner edge of this wing and her chin line. The effect is also to elongate her throat and neck, and the elegant line of the neck echoes the contour of her face on the left.
Another diagonal runs from the lower and narrower edge of the left-hand wing of the head-dress, over the outline of the woman's right breast - which hardly stands out at all from the background today - then to her left thumb, and on along her sleeve; the opening of this sleeve, in turn, lies along the same line as the plunging neckline of her dress.
These geometrical relationships do not merely provide pictorial structure; at the same time they lend the sitter a touch of austere dignity. They also emphasize an ideal expressed in the fashions that she wears: their slender, elongated elegance, the high forehead shaved at the hairline, the tall head-dress, and the lownecked, close-fitting dress pulled in below the breasts with a broad belt are all suited to that ideal. The large diagonals emphasize the slender upper body and the pointed culmination of the structure of the figure at the head, while the clear outline of the veil over her forehead makes her skull seem even taller by continuing the left-hand contour of her face, and finally sweeping elegantly upward into the head-dress. Beauty of line determines the features themselves, which are portrayed with fine, lifelike modeling. Their regular and immaculate structure, and the emphasis on such details as the sitter's large eyes and full, very sensuous lips, show that although her portrait may well have resembled her, it is still an idealization.
The lighting, in contrast to the light of Jan van Eyck's portraits, is diffuse, and does not create the impression of a concrete spatial and temporal situation in which the subject of the portrait exists. This again is a kind of idealization, removing the woman in the portrait from all that is momentary and transitory. With the austere background, and her collected, deliberate attitude, which is complemented by the way her hands are placed together and her demurely lowered but alert gaze, she too expresses an aristocratic ideal of high rank - but this aspect of the portrait appears to be part of the woman's character rather than merely a pose. Rogier was probably faithfully reproducing the image that his sitter projected of herself.