“Michel Sittow: Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe” at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Michel Sittow’s Catherine of Aragón as the Magdalene, c. 1515 oil on oak panel.Source: Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, General Membership Fund Bridgeman Images
Jan. 28–May 13
People have the tendency to assume that celebrity is a contemporary phenomenon, but the success of Michel Sittow (1469–1525), an Estonian artistic savant who was sought-after by European heads of state, proves that celebrity goes back a long way. Thirteen of the artist’s known paintings will be assembled alongside those of one of his contemporaries, Juan de Flandes, in the museum’s West Building.
Washington, DC—Considered Estonia’s greatest Renaissance artist, Michel Sittow (c. 1469–1525) was sought after by the renowned European courts of his day, including those of King Ferdinand of Aragón and Queen Isabella of Castile, Philip the Handsome, Margaret of Austria, and Christian II of Denmark. In celebration of the centennial of the establishment of the Republic of Estonia, Michel Sittow: Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe provides an exceptional opportunity to examine the rare and masterful works attributed to Sittow. The exhibition explores the artist’s possible collaboration with Juan de Flandes (1460–1519), his relationship with his Netherlandish contemporaries, and the influence of his likely teacher, Hans Memling (active c. 1465–1494).
Michel Sittow, the first monographic exhibition of the artist, features some 20 works and brings together most of the artist’s 13 known paintings. The exhibition will be on view from January 28 through May 13, 2018, in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and from June 8 through September 16, 2018, at the Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn, where it will be on view at the Kumu Art Museum.
“The first monographic exhibition of Sittow’s work, Michel Sittow: Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe offers an opportunity to celebrate one of the masters of Early Netherlandish art,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art, Washington. “We are grateful to our partner, the Art Museum of Estonia, and their team at the Kumu Art Museum, where the exhibition will be on view, as well as to public and private collections in the United States and Europe that have generously lent to this exhibition.”
Organization and Support
The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn.
The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
Michel Sittow: Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe is the first monographic exhibition devoted to the artist and provides an opportunity for a systematic technical investigation of the works attributed to him. The exhibition includes some 20 paintings from American and European collections, including 13 paintings by Sittow, as well as works by Juan de Flandes, Hans Memling, and Jan Gossaert that provide a context for understanding Sittow’s achievement.
Among the highlights are The Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1500/1504, National Gallery of Art) and The Ascension of Christ (c. 1500/1504, private collection), the only two securely documented works by Sittow. Commissioned by Queen Isabella of Castile, they were among 47 panels of an altarpiece dedicated to the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. After Isabella’s death in 1504, 32 of these panels, including these two and The Temptation of Christ (c. 1500/1504, National Gallery of Art) by Juan de Flandes, entered the collection of Archduchess Margaret of Austria. Depicting Sittow’s mastery of color and delicate atmospheric effects, The Assumption of the Virgin has three known copies, and is recognized as an influential source for Joachim Patinir’s Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1500–1520, Philadelphia Museum of Art).
Also included is the Portrait of the Danish King Christian II (1514/1515, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen), one of the few works by Sittow that is both firmly dated and in which the sitter’s identity is confirmed; x-rays reveal another portrait, possibly of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, underneath the painting, demonstrating Sittow’s reuse of panels. The exhibition also reunites two panels originally hinged together to form the devotional diptych—Madonna and Child (c. 1515/1518, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) and Portrait of Diego de Guevara (?) (c. 1515/1518, National Gallery of Art). Other highlights include Portrait of a Man(c. 1510, Mauritshuis, The Hague), as well as two portraits linked to the Tudor court in England: Catherine of Aragon as the Magdalene (c. 1515, Detroit Institute of Arts), and Mary Rose Tudor (1496–1533), Sister of Henry VIII of England (c. 1514, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), previously known as a portrait of Catherine of Aragón, and recently re-identified as the youngest sister of Henry VIII.
Michel Sittow (1469–1525)
Michel Sittow was born in the Hanseatic port city of Reval, now Tallinn, in Estonia and probably received his earliest training from his father, also a painter and sculptor. Sittow moved to Bruges in 1484 where he presumably apprenticed under Hans Memling, that city’s leading painter. Memling’s influence can be seen in Sittow’s Madonnas and portraits. Sittow did not register as a master with the Bruges guild and his whereabouts are unknown before 1492 when he entered the service of Queen Isabella of Castile, where he was prized as a portrait painter.
He is known to have collaborated with Juan de Flandes on the series of small panels depicting the lives of Christ and the Virgin for Queen Isabella. He remained in Isabella’s service until her death in 1504, but was apparently absent from Spain after late 1502. Suggestions that he visited the courts of Margaret of Austria and Henry VII of England shortly after 1502 remain unsubstantiated, although he was certainly in Brabant at the end of 1505 or early in 1506, working for Duke Philip the Handsome. Sittow returned to Reval in 1506 to settle his inheritance and remained there, receiving membership in the artists’ guild late in 1507 and marrying in 1509. He was called away from Reval in 1514 to paint the portrait of Christian II of Denmark, the future husband of Margaret of Austria’s niece, Isabella. Sittow then began a second, shorter period of service at the court of Margaret of Austria and her nephew, the future Emperor Charles V, in the Netherlands. This was interrupted by a brief trip to Spain to negotiate the salary still owed him. By July 13, 1518, when he married again, Sittow was back in Reval. He lived there, a prosperous and respected citizen, until his death in late December 1525.
Curators and Catalog
The exhibition is curated by John Oliver Hand, curator of Northern Renaissance paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, and Greta Koppel, curator of Dutch and Flemish art, Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog featuring essays by Hand and Koppel as well as by Anu Mänd, Institute of History, Archaeology and Art History, Tallinn University; Till-Holger Borchert, Musea Brugge, Belgium; Ariane van Suchtelen, Mauritshuis, The Netherlands; and Matthias Weniger, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich. The hardcover catalog is available for purchase in the Gallery Shops
Michel Sittow: Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe (60 mins.)
West Building Rotunda
Eric Denker: February 13–16, 21–23, noon
David Gariff: March 2, 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, 20, 2:00 p.m.
Introduction to the Exhibition—Michel Sittow: Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe
March 11, 2:00 p.m.
East Building AuditoriumJohn Hand, curator of northern Renaissance paintings, National Gallery of Art
March 11, 4:00 p.m.
East Building Auditorium
The greatest of all the cinematic adaptations of King Lear, this 1971 production by Grigori Kozintsev is based on a Russian translation by Boris Pasternak, and features the breathtaking black-and-white open-air cinematography of Ionas Gritsius. The film’s epic sweep and brilliant use of locations balances the breadth of Shakespeare’s tragedy, while an imposing titlerole performance by Estonian actor Jüri Järvet is arguably the best Lear ever rendered on stage or screen. Shostakovich’s score is spare and haunting, with memorable use of woodwind. (Grigori Kozintsev, 1971, 35mm, subtitles, 139 minutes)
April 8, 3:30 p.m.
West Building, West Garden Court
The vocal ensemble Heinavanker is a unique meeting point for musicians active in different fields. Since 1996, under the direction of composer Margo Kõlar, the group has delved into early sacred music, our ancestors’ traditions, and contemporary imagination. Ancient Estonian runic songs and folk hymns are an important part of Heinavanker’s repertoire. The name Heinavanker (Estonian for “hay wagon”) originates from Hieronymus Bosch’s (c. 1450–1516) Haywain Triptych. The allegoric scenes of this strange painting seem like they could be inspired by modern life. In the midst of chaos, music arises.