The first solo exhibition of 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, and his family was 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 Brugge to the famous painter Hans Memling, who formed a taste for art and portrait vision of the young master. Even though Sittow worked at the court of many European monarchs and left a sufficient number of portraits after his life, 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 at the Kumu Museum continues 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. About 20 works were 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.
His artistic journey for a long time did not represent particular interest for explorers of the portrait painting of the second half of the XVth - first third of the XVIth centuries. This probably was attributed to Michel Sittow working at the courts of different European monarchs and traveled a lot. The territorial dispersion of his works did not represent the possibility of conducting a study of the biography 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. Interestingly, the exhibition is built on a combination of several information spaces and one artistic space. Going to the show, you start a counter-clockwise motion, studying the video series on the sidewalls and the chronology of the work of Michel Sittow, which is painted on a semicircular wall, behind which await the dramatic results. 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 counter-clockwise, from the earliest to the later one. Moving from one piece to another, we make a journey through time, which opens us the name of Michel Sittow. Even though the exhibition presents works of different genres, the central role here is played by portraits, which impress with their fantastic likeness.
In most cases, the names of those whom Sittow depicted did not reach us. Among those names that were preserved by history, there are glorified European monarchs, members of their families, and people of nobility.
Among the great variety of male portraits, there are only a few females. 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 calm monochrome color range resemble 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 Arts, 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.
As for the male images, they are all extraordinarily individual and are not quoted by the master. And of course, among the male portraits, the most vivid picture 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 take 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 to help 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 specifically for all European countries.
This exhibition and the colossal research work conducted in the run-up to it allow us to hope that the newly acquired history of the master's work will create an excellent basis for further research.
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