This portrait of an unknown gentleman by Gillis or Egidius Claeissens (1526-1605) is published here for the first time. Claeissens was a Flemish painter based in Bruges, specializing in portraits and altarpieces, and only in recent years has his work come to better light. In 2015 Alexandra Zvereva determined that the artist traditionally known as the Monogrammist G. E. C. and Gillis Claeissens are the same painter. The fortuitous discovery of archival documents which map out different stages of Gillis’s career has helped advance this research further. Until now, his work has been long overshadowed by another Bruges portrait painter, Pieter Pourbus (ca.1523-1584), to whom a number of Gillis’s portraits have been attributed to in the past. Pourbus was widely known at the time as the best portraitist in Bruges.
Gillis stemmed from a prominent family of painters all based in Bruges: the second son of Pieter Claeissens the Elder (1500-1576), who specialized in portraiture and history painting. Gillis’s grandfather Alard Claeissens was a painter, while Gillis’s two younger brothers, Antoon (1541-1613), and Pieter (ca. 1535-1623) also took up this profession. All three trained in their father’s workshop and Gillis was admitted as master of the Guild of St. Luke of Bruges on 18th October 1566. The 2018 exhibition: Forgotten Masters. Pieter Pourbus and Bruges Painting from 1525 to 1625, held in the Groeningemuseum and accompanied by a scholarly catalogue, focused on the careers and oeuvre of Pieter Claeissens and his three sons. The essay by Brecht Dewilde and Anne van Oosterwijk investigated the Claeissen family enterprise and their strategies to sell their art works and attract patrons in mid-sixteenth century Bruges. Regardless that Antwerp took over as the leading city for the export of art works, a small but wealthy élite continued to commission paintings and portraits in Bruges. Pieter Claeissens the Elder targeted his output for the Spanish export market and looked to Iberian merchants, bankers or consuls residing in Bruges as prospective sitters. He deliberately signed his paintings with the location of his studio, as a means of directing potential buyers to his home in the Oude Zak street.
Gillis worked in his father’s workshop well into the 1570s, until becoming an artist in his own right, carving out subsequently a distinguished career for himself. He became advisor to the Bruges Guild of St. Luke and during various periods of his life, was even head of the guild. By 1589 Gillis had relocated to Brussels where he was appointed painter in title to the governor-general of the Netherlands, Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma (1545-1592), working for him until his death in 1592. After a four year interlude in Bruges, Gillis returned to the Brussels court in 1596 to work for the Archdukes Albert and Isabella Clara Eugenia, for whom he painted a Christ on the Cross in 1600, which they hung in the chapel of the Coudenberg palace (now lost) and executed a miniature of Isabella in 1604, the same year he returned definitively to Bruges. He died there in 1605, buried in the Sant-Jakobskirk; his marble tombstone still extant.
Gillis Claeissens specialized in portrait painting and Zvereva correctly identified several portraits by him, which he signed with his initials (“G. C.: Fec”). Two, today in the Hallwylska museet in Stockholm, are illustrated here. The latter have been identified as companion pieces, identical in size, depicting a mother and her son. Both are on panel, and in comparison with this unknown man, are very close in composition, style and delicacy of execution. All three works reflect Gillis’ mastery of technique and high-quality painting. Unlike the portraits in Stockholm, this unknown man undoubtedly by Gillis is neither signed nor dated.
Gillis’ signature style is best characterized in this three-quarter length portrait. As in the Stockholm portraits, this unidentified male is placed very close to the foreground plane, framed by a green velvet curtain in the background which enhances his monumentality. He strikes an elegant pose, his large, right hand resting prominently on the right hip, the elongated fingers outlined in brown. As with the male sitter in Stockholm, Gillis has painted here his distinctive crooked thumb and little finger. This sitter’s high rank as a Bruges patrician is equally emphasized by his expensive black attire, the left sleeve revealing a secret pocket into which a luxurious lace handkerchief is tucked in; a dress accessory which marks his status.
His left hand firmly holds the hilt of his rapier suspended from his black leather hanger. While its hilt is made up of an oviform pommel with a large button, the rapier features a multiple branched counter-guard. Of darkened steel, its pommel is decorated with fine floral scrolls damascened in silver. Also suspended from the leather hanger, with matching darkened iron buckles and strap ends, the dagger features a circular flat top or cap decorated with a raised lion mask on a circular cartouche in gold over the white steel, a spiral tapering grip of steel, and straight guards. Of the so-called “Landsknecht” type (mercenary soldiers, mostly well-trained German pikemen and foot soldiers), the dagger’s decoration with Mannerist-style strapwork helps to date this portrait to the late 1550s, before the decline of the Landsknecht’s military and social importance from 1560 onwards. A similarly shaped “Landsknecht” type dagger, with a spiral tapering grip, from ca. 1530-1550, belongs to the Wallace Collection, London (inv. A755). Alongside the heavy gold chain, the carefully depicted jewelry includes an impressive set of melon-shaped rock crystal buttons caged in gold, probably French or Venetian in manufacture, and a simple gold ring set with two cabochon-cut emeralds. Probably of Colombian origin, the stones, alongside the highly refined Landsknecht-type dagger, certainly only at the reach of a high-ranking military in the Imperial Landsknechte, suggests that the sitter may have served the Habsburg imperial court, which would also explain the presence of such a long, valuable gold chain.
The long, linked gold chain is heavily draped three times around his neck, from which a large gold Portuguese coin, a português minted during the reign of King John III of Portugal, is suspended. This opulent chain and the sitter’s princely costume help pinpoint the date of this portrait’s execution between ca. 1550 and 1557, the year John III died. Gold chains were given away to high-ranking courtiers, officers and diplomats for services rendered the crown; extraordinary presents of great honor and prestige. The sitter may have been an élite Flemish or German soldier, resident in Bruges, who was gifted this chain by Emperor Charles V for past military services. The presence of the gold português is certainly a sign of distinction. A portrait of a German lady in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London dated 1582, depicts her wearing a similar português or possibly a portugaleser, a coin modeled after the large Portuguese gold coin and struck in Hamburg between the 1550s and 1590s. As Zvereva has observed, Gillis was a master in rendering shimmering fabrics, sophisticated jewelry and accessories for a demanding aristocratic clientele obsessed with appearances and whose portrayals were modeled after Habsburg court portraits by leading painters such as Anthonis Mor and Alonso Sánchez Coello.
This new research on Gillis Claeissens helps confirm that a portrait bust of Princess Maria of Portugal (1538-1577), Duchess of Parma and the spouse of Alexander Farnese, today in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, until now attributed to the Flemish portraitist, Jooris van der Straeten, must be reconsidered in light of Zvereva’s reattributions. The original, three-quarter length portrait which served as a model for the Lisbon bust recently appeared on the art market; both ladies the same sitter. These two should be now attributed to Gillis and added to his oeuvre, and the lady identified as Flemish noble woman from Bruges.