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Study of a Man's Head with Red Beret. Oil on panel. 39.2 x 32.2 cm. Circa 1562–65.
Head studies play an important role in the painted œuvre of Frans Floris. The artist favoured oak panels as a picture carrier and most of the studies are of identical size (46 x 33 cm), even if – as in the present case – there are occasional departures from this rule. The majority of these paintings and sketches was done in the period between c. 1553 and c. 1565. As Carl Van de Velde clearly demonstrates in his still authoritative monograph on Floris, these works are not character heads in a general sense, but were intended as preliminary studies for paintings the artist was planning. The varying poses of the heads and the changes in facial expression bear a close symbiotic relation to the role to be played by the subject in the final composition. These are not studies made from a living model, but fantasy portraits originating in the artist’s imagination. The life-size oil studies enabled Floris to investigate closely the distribution of light and shade and the plastic volumes of the faces, as well as their individual expressiveness, thus proving an important aid to the execution of the final painting (see Carl Van de Velde, Frans Floris (1519/20– 1570). Leven en Werken, Brussels 1975, Vol. I, p. 65ff). Our Study of a Man's Head with Red Beret shows close stylistic analogies with a large number of these oil studies, especially the Half-length Portrait of a Man, which in the past was erroneously taken for a portrait of Bramante (Van de Velde S 141, plate 73, whereabouts unknown). Strong similarities include the heavy, fleshy shape of the face and the elaboration of individual anatomical details, such as the jutting cheekbones, the firmly closed mouth, the prominent, slightly Roman nose, and the position of the ear, nestling amid curly hair. A highly characteristic touch is the somewhat schematic rendering of the auricle, where the helix to the inner ear ends in a strongly emphasized point (see also for example Van de Velde, S 152, plate 76). The costumes of the men depicted also show clear analogies: both are clad in classical-style garments and wear Renaissance berets.
It is highly likely that the so-called Bramante was conceived as a preliminary study for the lost Retable of St. Luke, which used to be in St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, and is dated circa 1562–63 by Van de Velde on stylistic grounds. It seems plausible that our head study should also be seen in this context. In any case the free, effortless treatment suggests a date around 1562–65. Floris has a technically sophisticated painting style, and the quality of the pigments used also shows that he was a master of his craft. The portrait has been painted over a light brown ground, which effectively shines through in the whites of the eyes and the man’s curly hair. A transparent glaze technique is employed to render the skin tones in a varied and vivid manner. The striking head seems to breathe and radiates vibrant life. With a fine line of bright red Floris has accentuated the lower eyelid and lower lip. A warmer, richly modulated red is applied for the ruddier parts of the face, such as the ear and nose, while chin and cheekbone show a grayish shimmer, convincingly suggestive of stubble. The warm vermilion of the beret wonderfully harmonizes with the ochre of the tunic and coat. Floris has brilliantly shown how the light catches a decorative seam on the brim of the beret and used diluted white to pick out other isolated points of light on the neckline and right shoulder. From Floris to Rubens is but a step. The liveliness of expression, the plasticity of the formal treatment and the technical bravura adumbrate the emergence of a new genius.
The portrayal has been painted on a high-quality panel of oak heartwood, which retains its original format and has not been subsequently reduced in size. The support on the verso has been slightly bevelled on three sides, while the left side shows the original cut edge, on which traces of imprimatura and pigments are still visible. Floris’ authorship has been confirmed by Carl Van de Velde.