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Circle of Hugo van der Goes, Portrait of a Man

Circle of Hugo van der Goes (Netherlandish, about 1470–75). Portrait of a Man, ca. 1470–75. Oil on paper, laid down on wood. Overall 8 3/4 x 6 1/2 in. (22.2 x 16.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, 2009 Benefit Fund, Hester Diamond Gift, Victor Wilbour Memorial Fund, Mary Harriman Foundation and Friends of European Paintings Gifts, Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Fund, Marquand and Charles B. Curtis Funds, and University Place Foundation Gift, 2010 (2010.118)

As fine a fifteenth-century portrait as one could hope to find, this small panel is an extraordinary survivor. Executed on paper laid down on panel, it is extremely rare since its very construction potentially compromised its chances. On arrival at the Painting Conservation Center for examination in October 2008, the paper support was extremely brittle and delaminating from the wooden panel: a direct consequence of the painting having been kept in an uncontrolled environment for many years. At least 25% of the surface had severe blisters and the shrinkage of the actual panel had left insufficient space to consolidate these successfully.

Following a prolonged period of observation and discussion, it was decided to place the painting in a humidity chamber and gradually raise the local relative humidity in order to encourage the auxiliary wooden support to expand and the paper to regain a degree of flexibility. After several months at this elevated humidity, it was possible to begin a careful campaign of consolidation, systematically relaxing and re-adhering the blisters. Once the picture surface was in plane, oxidized varnish, discolored overpaint, and filling material around the edges could be safely removed. The small losses in the paper support were repaired with insets and retouched to integrate them into the surrounding original.

Fortunately, it is now the painting's self-evident and quite breathtaking quality that is its most striking feature; its extraordinary impact markedly at odds with its modest dimensions. Only a small and highly select group of painters reach this level of artistry.