The 16th "Contexts of the Permanent Collection" exhibition is devoted to the portraits of Hans Memling: one of the most interesting chapters within the artist's oeuvre. The exhibition will first be held at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid then travels to the Groeningemuseum in Bruges (7 June to 4 September). Finally, it goes to the Frick Collection, New York (6 October to 31 December).

Hans Memling was of German origin and was born in Seligenstadt around 1435. The first reference to the artist dates from 1465 when he is known to have acquired citizenship in Bruges, an essential requirement for practising as an artist in the city, where he arrived already a fully qualified master. Memling is thought to have first trained in his native city, in Germany, then perhaps moved on to Brussels to study with Rogier van der Weyden. In Bruges he worked for the leading families as well as for the large and flourishing community of foreigners who engaged in business activities there. Despite this, he never received an official commission from the city. Memling's first important work was the Last Judgement Triptych commissioned by the representative of the Medici family, Agnolo di Jacopo Tani. After an eventful history, the painting is now in the Narodowe Museum in Gdańsk. Among Memling's most important compositions is the Triptych of the Saint Johns of 1479, painted for the Hospital of Saint John in Bruges and now in the Memlingmuseum in that city. The Moreel Triptych of 1484 is also a significant work, painted for the church of the Apostle James and paid for by the politician and merchant Willem Moreel. In it, Memling included one of the first family group portraits. A major late work is the famous reliquary with scenes from the Life of Saint Ursula, completed in 1489 and featuring views of the city of Cologne. The 1490s saw a significant reduction in the number of commissions which the artist received. Memling died in Bruges on 11 August 1494.

The portraits of Van Eyck and Petrus Christus were important precedents for Memling's work in this genre. In addition to including the donors within religious scenes, Flemish artists also invented a type of small format portrait which was extremely well received in Italy and elsewhere. In his day, Memling was the most important artist working in this format. While his portraits of donors occupy a prominent position within his religious paintings, his independent portraits constitute an outstanding group which helped to consolidate and promote his reputation. For these works, Memling used plain backgrounds, interiors and landscapes, focusing all the attention on the face of the sitter, who generally has some sort of attribute and is depicted bust-length. Memling used formulas developed years before by other Flemish artists, but with innovations such as the use of a landscape setting. One example of this type is the Portrait of a Man in the Frick Collection, New York (cat. no. 2). Other important works are the Portrait of a Man in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique (cat. no. 7), the Portrait of a Man with Coin in the Koninklijk Museum, Antwerp (cat. no. 10) and the Portrait of a Young Man in the Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice (cat. no. 16). In all these works the figures and landscapes are fine examples of the painter's technical skills. Memling's backgrounds also included interiors opening onto natural scenes such as the Portrait of a Young Man in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (cat. no. 15) and the Portrait of a Young Man at Prayer in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (cat. no. 25). The portraits of a Portrait of a Man with a Gold Cord (Royal Collection, Great Britain; cat. no. 12), the Portrait of a Man with an Arrow from the National Gallery of Art, Washington (cat. no. 13) and the Portrait of a Man in the Uffizi, Florence (cat. no. 24) all show how the artist used the sitter's hands, leaning on concealed ledges, resting on the frames or holding an object. In the only independent female portrait by the artist to have survived, the Sibyl in the Memlingmuseum-Sint-Janshospitaal in Bruges (cat. no. 17), Memling uses the shape of the panel to illusionistically project the sitter forward through the trompe l'oeil depiction of her fingers resting on the frame. Other notably three-dimensional female portraits are the old woman in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (cat. no. 9). One of the most important of all Memling's works is the Maarten van Nieuwenhove Diptych in the Memlingmuseum-Sint-Janshospitaal in Bruges (cat. no. 23). Here Memling is particularly successful in the spatial relationship between the two wings, while also conveying the sitter's devotion but elevated social status.

Memling developed a new idiom in these portraits, combining reality and illusionism. His innovations are clearly reflected in the work of the Italian portrait painters.