Description of the artwork «Portrait of a Young Lady»
The famous Portrait of a Young Lady (c. 1465 – 1470) is a small panel painting, a fragile, enigmatic work which marks a major stylistic advance in Flemish portraiture. A number of legends, assumptions and myths coalesced around this masterpiece. Christus's charming sitter is sometimes compared to Mona Lisa. Her unflinching stare - half come-hither, half stand-offish – captivates with a charm that is hard to pin down.
The authorship of the portrait was established in 1825 due to the inscriptions seen on the original frame, which was subsequently lost. The sitter was identified there as a relative "of the famous Talbots". After a series of studies, most art historians tend to believe that she was more likely a daughter of John Talbot, 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury, either Anne or Margaret. She and her family may have travelled to Bruges in 1468 to attend the wedding of Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV of England, to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.
Though the question of the identity of the sitter is not completely closed, in the end, it is of little importance compared with the artistic merits of the picture. It's the light, the almost childlike beauty of the portrait that makes this unique work an enchanted masterpiece. The sitter is depicted in line with the Gothic ideals of female beauty: narrow shoulders and a long neck, emphasized by an elegant necklace, the elongated oval of the face, underscored by the black ribbon, the eyebrows plucked – in keeping with the fashion of the time – almost into nothingness, and tightly pulled-back hair enhancing her long forehead. The bottom edge of the picture almost makes the viewer look into the girl's almond, slightly oriental eyes. She has that sidelong and piercing gaze that one is unsure whether to call cold, or anxious, and the halfway smile, slightly sulky, vaguely scornful - or perhaps both at the same time.
Christus frames his sitter in an almost architectural manner which is both rigid and balanced. The image is divided by the horizontal parallel lines of her wainscot and blouse, which join at the inverted triangle formed by the neckline of her dress and the headdress. The delicate diffuse light flits over the contours of a face that still harbours signs of childhood. In a break with tradition, Christus sets his sitter not against the conventional dark background but in a real interior, as if she was sitting in her home. The artist avoids pointless detail, trying to delineate the model's necklace, gown, and coif, so that nothing distracts the viewer from the girl’s look, face, as well as the atmosphere that surrounds her.
The panel was listed in the 1492 inventory of Lorenzo de' Medici, the ruler of the Florentine Republic. At that time the scribe was uninformed and described it as a small panel bust of a French lady. It was highly valued, with an unusually high price of 40 florins, and prominently displayed. In the early nineteenth century it was acquired together with other works of the old masters for the king of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm III. The monarch hoped to make a collection that would surpass the Louvre. Later this collection became the foundation of the Berlin Picture Gallery. Portrait of a Young Lady by Petrus Christus is kept there to this day.