Michel Sittow

Michael Sittow is a unique and outstanding artist, who worked on the second half of the XV — the first third of the XVI century. He was born in Reval, in a family closely related to art, so his future fate was predestined in many ways already from his childhood. In his youth, Sittow went to study in Bruges to the famous painter Hans Memling, who formed taste for art and portrait vision of the young master. Despite the fact that Sittow worked at the court of many European monarchs and left after his life a sufficient number of portraits his name was forgotten in the history of art for a very long period.

Portrait of a Man with a Rosary, c. 1520. Oil on panel (oak), 33.6 x 22.8 cm. Private collection, courtesy of Het Noordbrabants Museum, Hertogenbosch, Netherlands.

Exhibition of Michel Sittow. Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe, Tallinn (till 16-th of September) at the Kumu Museum is a continuation of the same name exhibition, held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (January 28 to May 13). It is dedicated to the 500th anniversary of the return of Michel Sittow to Reval (now Tallinn), and this is the first personal exhibition of master’s works. Thanks to the joint efforts of the two institutions, curators and researchers managed to collect the pearls of the creative work of Michel Sittow in the exposition. In total there areabout 20 works presented at the exhibition, most of which are currently stored in museums such as the National Gallery in Washington, Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Detroit Institute of Arts and etc.

His artistic journey for a long time did not represent particular interest for explorers of portrait painting of the second half of the XVth — first third of the XVIth centuries. This probably was attributed to the fact that Michel Sittow worked at the courts of different European monarchs and travelled a lot. The territorial dispersion of his works did not represent the possibility of conducting a study of the monograph and a complete analysis of the master’s works.


Special attention should be paid to the design of the exhibition and the exposition plan. In the exhibition hall of Kumu Museum, submerged in the twilight there is music of the master’s era. On the perimeter, on the walls there are video projections dedicated to the creative path of Sittow. It is interesting that the exhibition is built on a combination of several information spaces and one artistic space. Going to the exhibition, you start a counter-clockwise motion, studying the video series on the side walls and the chronology of the work of Michel Sittow, which is painted on a semicircular wall, behind which await the picturesque works. Thus, exploring the history of his life, we find ourselves in the world of his artistic heritage.

Sittow’s works are arranged in chronological order and again counter-clockwise, from the earliest to the later one. Moving from work to work, we make a journey through time, which opens us the name of Michel Sittow. Despite the fact that the exhibition presents works of different genres, the main role here is played by portraits, which impress with their amazing likeness.

Portrait of a Man with the Pearl, 1515-1517. Oil on panel (oak), 22.4 x 17.8 cm. Royal Collection, Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real de Madrid.

In most cases, the names of those who were depicted by Sittow did not reach us. Among those names that were preserved by the history there are glorified European monarchs, members of their families and people of nobility.

Among the great variety of male portraits, there is only a few female. One of these works is Mary Rose Tudor’s portraits (c.1514. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna) the sister of King Henry VIII. Her gentle image, downy eyes and a calm monochrome color range make it similar to works painted on a religious plot. It is worthy of note that if we look closely at the works with the image of Catherine of Aragón as the Magdalene (c. 1515. Detroit Institute of Artts, Founders Society Purchase, General Membership Fund) and Madonna and Child (c.1515/1518. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), we can identify in Maria Tudor in their faces. All three works were created almost at the same time, and the artist could specifically make the images on these two portraits similar to the «beloved» face of Mary.

Mary Rose Tudor (1496-1533), sister of Henry VIII of England, c. 1514. Oil on panel (oak), 29 x 20.5 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna.

As for the male images, they are all extremely individual and are not quoted by the master. And of course, among the male portraits the most vivid image is the portrait of Diego de Guevara (c.1515/1518. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection. no. 13. cat. 13) from the national gallery in Washington – a simple, understandable, and at the same time highly artistic work. Perhaps the main difference between this painting and not only from other works of Sittow, but also from other paintings of this period, is the coloring of Guevara’s face. When the rest of the people’s faces are monotonous and at times deliberately pale, Sittow has achieved remarkable attention to the human image, to its fullness of life. This work shows us a person as he is, without trying to make from him an ephemeral spiritualized image.

Portrait of Diego de Guevara (?), c.1515/1518. Oil on panel (oak), 33.6 x 23.7 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection.

Studying the art of this master allows us helping out the lost throughout the course of history knowledge about him which is necessary for understanding the history of the portrait genre. Moreover, the work of Michel Sittow an Estonian master who worked at the court of many European monarchs during his life — is the best example of the pan-European character of the culture of the XVth- XVIth centuries.

The portraits created in England, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, without exception simultaneously contain the features of exceptionally national art schools and features specific for all European countries.

This exhibition, as well as the colossal research work conducted in the run-up to it, allows us hoping for the newly acquired history of the master’s work will create an excellent basis for further research.


June 8 – September 16. Tallinn, Estonia

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